Ecocriticism And Postcolonial Criticism Analysis In Desiree’s Baby By Kate Chopin
There are various theories offered to be used in analyzing literary works that exist such as psychoanalytic, lesbian/gay criticism, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism, postcolonial criticism, ecocriticism and there are many more to come. The list will continue to grow as there will be new theories that can be found. Studying literary criticism is interesting as the existing theories always have their strengths and weaknesses. This study will try to explore two of those theories namely postcolonial criticism and ecocriticism. The writer will try to seek how both theories are related to the categories of nature and culture. Ecocriticism sees nature as an entity that can affect humans and be affected by humans while postcolonial criticism analyzes human culture as a result of the exploitation and the use of power by the colonial. Both postcolonial criticism and ecocriticism are the subjects of literary criticism. The literary work to be analyzed by those two selected theories in this study is one of Kate Chopin’s masterpieces entitled Desiree’s Baby.
Desiree’s Baby was written by Kate Chopin and was firstly published in 1893. The story is set before the American Civil War. The story describes the life story of Desiree who was first a baby that was adopted by a wealthy French Creoles family, Monsieur and Madame Valmonde that later turned into a beautiful young woman. Then, Desiree was courted by Armand Aubigny, the heir of another wealthy French Creole family in Lousiana. As he was into Desiree, he did not mind about her ancestors, and they ended up married and had a child. The arrival of their child had softened Armand who was known to be a very strict and harsh individual. Their child appeared to have black blood that could be seen from the baby’s skin color. After the months of the delivery of their baby, Desiree felt that something was wrong from the way her husband behaved. He turned to the old Armand and started to avoid both Desiree and the baby. When her husband came home, Desiree asked him about the baby. Armand, then, accused his wife of having mixed ancestry, and he assumed that she was part black which was the reason why their baby turned to have black complexion. Desiree tried to convince her husband that she belonged to white. In the end, she seemed to have no power to go against her husband as he stated that she was as white as their mixed-race slaves. Thus, she decided to send a letter to her Madam Valmonde telling her she was in need of her help. After all, the husband insisted on rejecting the wife. Then, Desiree took their child and walked into a bayou. She finally disappeared from her husband’s sight. At the end, when Armand tried to get rid of Desiree’s belongings by setting up a bonfire, he found several letters. Most of them belonged to Desiree, but he found one letter addressed to his father. The letter belonged to his mom and through the letter, it was revealed that Armand was the one who had black blood.
In the early years of Ecocriticism, the focus of the critics was to bring up environmental concerns through works of literature so that the society would be aware of the issue while on the other hand, postcolonial criticism focused on the matter of a reaction to the exploitation of culture and economy by those who held power or colonial. There seems to be a split between the two categories. Actually, the environment exists as there is an integration of both parties. Then, the writer decides to analyze the text using both natural and cultural approach as the writer assume that they are related to one another. The writer believes that both postcolonial and ecocriticism demonstrate the relationship between human and nonhuman.
Ecocriticism was introduced as part of literary criticism by the Association of the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) which started in 1993. According to Cheryll Glotfelty (as cited in Peter Barry, 2002), “Simply defined, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (p. 239). In the United Kingdom, Ecocriticism is known as Green Studies. The first individual that used the term was William Rueckert who wrote and published one of his work entitled ‘Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ in 1978. His goal is to focus on “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature”.
There were writers who valued nature as the source of inspiration and thus produced texts in relation to that of nature. By the emergence of ecocriticism, the critics tried to analyze the texts in order to bring up the concerns related to the environment and to bring awareness of the environmental issue to society by using that of kinds of literature.
In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the authors made use of nature writing. This can be seen from the attractive settings that were created. As a result, the conventional nature and images of the environment existed in which the primary concern was on the wilderness of nature. From this, it can be said that ecocriticism is a theory that seeks how human affects the environment, and how human is affected by the environment. Today, the study of the environment, especially in literature, is something interesting to be discussed as it brings up issues about environmental restoration. As we know, the damages caused by humans are everywhere. This contributes to the destruction of the environment. Thus, as part of environmental restoration, ecocritics raises the awareness of the global crisis by analyzing the text using an approach that is called ecocriticism.
Ecocriticism is there trying to help humans understand their roles and their impact on nature and how nature can also give an impact on them. How human affects nature can be seen from their expression and behavior toward the environment. Thus, by using ecocriticism in literary criticism, ecocritics try to highlight what type of resolution the field of literature can offer to the current issues, and through this kind of approach, humans are expected to be motivated to conserve the environment and their surrounding which will lead to the sustainability.
According to owl.purdue.edu, postcolonial criticism has similarities to cultural studies but they are different in terms of perspective on literature and politics. Thus, they can be discussed separately. Postcolonial critics mainly focus on literary works produced by both colonial powers and the colonialized ones. Some of the issues related to colonial and colonialized that can be criticized are power, social, economics, politics, culture and regions. The valuable contribution of postcolonial writers is to raise awareness of those issues and how the issues contribute to the colonial hegemony which is the way colonizers control the colonized.
Postcolonial criticism is a response to culture and ideology formed by colonizers. Postcolonial writers study how humans behave as well as the culture that is cultivated as a result of colonialism. Through the study, what can be gained are knowledge about the series of events, social hierarchical structure, and things remain as witnesses of what happened in the past. The primary concern of postcolonial criticism is to offer an understanding of the culture which was shaped by the colonial power. The exploitation by the colonizer varied in many aspects such as the possession of the land and resources from the colonized and the issues of slavery and racial tension between these two parties.
Postcolonial criticism studies how the environment is dominated by the ones who have power toward the other who are inferior. The power possessed will contribute to what they do such as to make use of lands that were owned by native people (now colonized). Their behaviors can also be examined such as how they treat native people or the ones put the act of colonial to and how they treat their family and colleagues.
From the explanation above, it can be seen that postcolonial criticism highlight differences and diversity between colonizer and colonized. This is also mentioned in Peter Barry (2002) as part of what postcolonial critics do. Thus, this theory functions to raise consciousness that there is a wide variety of contexts in the literary works which exist in the era of colonialism and postcolonialism.
Result and Discussion
In Desiree’s Baby by Kate Chopin, how the environment affects the human being, and how the environment is affected by a human can be seen from the words used in the story. For example, take a look at the following clauses.
“when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmondé had found her lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar.’
‘The prevailing belief was that she had been purposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon, late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Maïs kept, just below the plantation.”
When Monsieur Valmonde first found Desiree, she was just a baby that was asleep in the big pillar made of stone around the plantation owned by Monsieur himself. This describes that at that time, Monsieur owned the land. He made us of the land for growing the plants to support his living. This explains that human affects the environment. The plantation then gave profit to the human so that human can fulfill their daily needs. This tells that the environment can affect humans. The phrase ‘big stone pillar’ describes that people in that era use a natural resource to make a building or furniture that can be beneficial for humans. The pillar is made from the stone which belongs to nature. This means that the stone pillar is a product of nature and culture.
“The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.”
The sentence above describes how Armand felt when he met his future bride near the stone pillar. Phrases such as “swept along like an avalanche” and “or like a prairie fire” imply that the writer makes use of the scenic sublimes to describe the human’s feeling.
“Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall.”
The sentence explains that the tree was found close to the roof of the building. It shadowed the roof like a pall. It can be seen that in the story, the setting of the house is surrounded by a big tree.
“It was an October afternoon; the sun was just sinking. Out in the still fields the negroes were picking cotton.”
The above sentence describes that humans affect nature and how nature affects humans. As the negroes pick the cotton, it can be concluded that cotton is one of the plants that is grown by humans in the plantation. Humans make use of the plantation to grow the plants, and in the end, they can get something from it. The plantation is not abandoned. It is used to support humans’ life.
“She did not take the broad, beaten road which led to the far-off plantation of Valmondé. She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds. She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.”
The sentences above explain the way Desiree left the house as her husband allowed her to do so. The surroundings described in the sentences explain that she faced difficulties in her way of escaping from her husband. After leaving the plantation which is greatly taken care of by the workers, Désirée encountered the deserted fields, and she got hurt by the stubble. She finally disappeared after going through the reeds and willows that were near the bayou.
After having a close reading to the text, it can be concluded that the story was written in the era before globalization emerged rapidly. The situation and atmosphere of nature in the story were still good and calming. Unlike nowadays where there are pollutions all over the places. The story also did not explain vehicles except wagon. This means that at that time, there were fewer vehicles or fewer resources of pollutions that could affect the environment. The environment described in the story tells us that they can affect humans and can be affected by humans. This is what ecocritics do in analyzing literary works in relation to ecocriticism theory.
According to Baysal (2015), the setting of Desiree’s Baby is in Lousiana, part of the colonial state in the US where the state hosted slave trading in the nineteenth century. Lousiana is in the southern region that associated with the ownership of land and slaves during the period. This emphasized that it happened in a colonial land. The elements of colonial can be pictured from the view of postcolonialism. The story begins with Madame Valmondé’s narration which tells how the Valmondé happens to find and adopt Desiree, and the story ends when Armand, Desiree’s husband clears out Desiree’s and the son’s belongings in which he found a letter which exposed his true identity. This letter unlocked the unclear suspicion about Desiree’s past and his own past in the story. It is revealed from the letter that is addressed to Armand’s father by his mother that she is a slave. Thus, it can be seen that Armand is the one who has black ancestry.
What can be examined using postcolonial theory is as follow. First, there is a social wrong in the story which is racial tension between two races, the whites, and the blacks. Armand was really cruel to his slaves that work in the household as well as the plantation. The one working in the house belong to ‘negroes’. He always gets furious to the slaves and he dares to punish them every time he is angry with something. He gives no mercy to the mistakes they make. The feeling of hate that he possesses towards these people can be seen after recognizing that the baby has black blood, and he even hates his own wife. After knowing that the baby had a dark complexion, not only he avoided his wife’s gaze and presence as well as the presence of the baby, but he also directly denied her when she demanded an explanation from him.
As Armand always looks down on black people, Desiree was afraid when looking at her son whose complexion is darker than hers. This is because, during the colonialism, the masters see black people or slaves as a shame and inferior. Black people were seen as incapable and powerless than Whites.
In the story, it is conveyed that Desiree’s adopted parents and Aubigny’s family are the representatives of colonial power who hold domination towards the other race. The workers, on the other hand, belong to the black race who represents slavery powerless. At the beginning of the story, Madame Valmondé explained situations in a plantation close to her house. This exposed colonial elements where the dominant owned the land. Then, Armand was described as a powerful, the heir of a wealthy family. He was really into Valmonde’s adopted daughter, Desiree. As the family is regarded as the “oldest and proudest” in Louisiana, this indicates that Armand has the superiority against the others.
When Madame Valmonde arrives at the Aubignys’ to pay a visit to her beloved daughter and the baby, the situation around the house is presented as dark and gloomy under the command of Armand. This describes that the colonial exploitation in the house is continued. Madame Valmonde explains that Armand is more rigid and crueler than the old Aubigny, who can tolerate the workers. At the end of the story, when Desiree leaves the house, it is described that there are slaves working under the sun in the plantation to pick cotton. This is an ironic picture that symbolizes the clear distinction or difference between slaves and the master. This is proof the superiority belongs to the Aubignys, and this is a picture family who has power in the southern part of America to control the slaves at that time where the blacks, on the other hand, seems to be the weak or the inferior.
From the explanation about ecocriticism and postcolonial criticism, it can be concluded that both are parts of theories that can be used in analyzing literary works. The text analysis of Kate Chopin’s Désirée’s baby reveals that the story includes nature and culture elements. From the words used in the story, it can be seen how culture is shaped by the colonial power, and it can also be implied that ecocriticism provides strategies for postcolonial critics as the exploitation in the text affects the humans as well as the environment.
- Barry, P. (2002). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester university press.
- Baysal, K. (2015). Surviving history: Kate Chopin. Ars Aeterna, 7(1), 1-9.
- GradeSaver (n.d.) Desiree’s Baby America’s Struggle with Race [Web post]. Retrieved from https://www.gradesaver.com/desirees-baby/study-guide/americas-struggle-with-race
- Purdue Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present) [Web post]. Retrieved from https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/post_colonial_criticism.html
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