By Kate Chopin (1851-1904)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2010
......."Désirée's Baby" is a short story centering on human relationships in the southern United States before the Civil War. Kate Chopin wrote it in the fall of 1892 and Vogue magazine published it in January 1893.
.......The action takes place in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century on two Louisiana plantations, one called Valmondé, a family name, and the other called L'Abri (French for shelter). The story begins in the warm-weather months and ends in autumn.
Désirée: A young woman described by the narrator as "beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere." When she was a very small child—of "toddling age," the narrator says—she was abandoned in front of a plantation home. Its owners adopted her.
.......Kate Chopin presents "Désirée's Baby" in omniscient third-person point of view, meaning that the narrator not only describes events as they unfold but also reveals the thoughts of the characters from time to time, as in this sentence: "When the baby was about three months old, Desiree awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace."Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2010
Racism and Gender Bias
Like many other American men of the mid-nineteenth century South, Armand Aubigny bases the worth of a person primarily on his or her race and gender. Women are subordinate to men, he believes, and persons with a black in their family tree are little more than subhuman. As master of the L'Abri plantation, he is a strict taskmaster who treats the slaves harshly—so much so, the narrator says, that the “negroes had forgotten how to be gay.” As a husband, Armand clearly rules the home. “When he frowned, [Désirée] trembled,” the narrator observes. “When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.” Although his manner softens after the child is born, his demeanor remains in question. As Désirée observes, “Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't true.” In other words, Armand judges the worth of the child according to its gender (in addition to its race). A male meant that the proud Aubigny name and aristocratic heritage would endure, perhaps for many generations. However, when Armand discovers that the child has Negro blood, he becomes sullen and cruel, and he makes it known that his wife and child are no longer welcome at L'Abri. He even tries to erase their memory by burning all their clothing and household items.
Judging by Appearances
Armand loved Désirée's outer beauty, not her inner beauty. She was a trophy. When the trophy became tarnished in his eyes, he removed it from its shelf and discarded it. He also rejected his child, for its skin exhibited a taint of impurity. Finally, like other Old South plantation owners, he viewed the blackness of his slaves as a defect that colored even their souls. However, conversation between Désirée and Madame Valmondé indicates that he apparently found time for La Blanche, the slave woman whose name (French for white) suggests that she was of mixed heritage, with light skin that made her a tolerable sexual object for Armand. Désirée, speaking of the loudness of her baby's crying, says, “Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin.”
Real Love Is Colorblind
The narrator says Armand "no longer loved [Désirée] because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name." Rejecting her because he believes she is of mixed heritage indicates that he never truly loved her in the first place. Real love is colorblind. On the other hand, after Désirée informs her mother of developments at L'Abri, Madame Valmondé tells her in a return letter, ""My own Desiree: Come home to Valmondé; back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child."
.......The climax occurs when Désirée realizes that her baby is of mixed racial heritage. This moment precipitates the tragic events that follow.
Désirée's "Obscure Origin"
The following passage—describing Armand's attitude regarding the lack of information about Désirée's family history—foreshadows his assumption that Désirée's ancestry included a black African.
Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl's obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?L'Abri's Appearance
The foreboding appearance of the exterior of Armand's home reflects his inner world and foreshadows the malevolence that possesses him after Désirée questions him about their child. Here is the description of L'Abri, presented when Madame Valmondé visits the plantation house. "It was a sad looking place. . . . The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall."
"Something in the Air"
Désirée detects a change for the worse in the atmosphere at L'Abri when her child is three months old, although she cannot fully explain what she feels. Her presentiment, along with a change in the demeanor of her husband, foreshadows the unhappy events that result in the destruction of her marriage. Here is the passage describing her feelings and the change in Armand's behavior.
When the baby was about three months old, Désirée awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace. It was at first too subtle to grasp. It had only been a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks; unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming. Then a strange, an awful change in her husband's manner, which she dared not ask him to explain. When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed to have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse. And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves. Désirée was miserable enough to die.Armand's Complexion
The following passage foreshadows the ending, when Armand reads the letter about his own background. The key sentence is underlined.
A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. "It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair," seizing his wrist. "Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand," she laughed hysterically.Désirée's Reaction to Her Supposed Racial Origin
.......When Armand tells Désirée that she is not white, her reaction suggests that she feels disgraced. She tells him, "It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair. Look at my hand;
whiter than yours, Armand." Then, when composing a letter to Madame Valmondé, she writes, "My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told me I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true. You must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live."
.......One passage in the story is particularly revealing in regard to the depth of Armand's malevolence. It occurs after he tells Désirée that he wants her to leave L'Abri. The narrator says, "He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife's soul."
bayou: Marsh near a river or lake.
.......The most important figure of speech in the story is irony. It occurs most notably at the end, when Armand discovers that it is he who is of mixed racial ancestry. Another example of irony is the fact that Désirée's child becomes fatherless after Armand rejects his wife and
the boy. Eighteen years before, Désirée, crying "Dada," was fatherless when Monsieur Valmondé found her.
And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him
[Désirée] was striving to penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about her
"Armand," she called to him, in a voice which must have stabbed him
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. . . .
The roof came down steep and black like a cowl
their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall
The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy.
The blood turned like ice in her veins
She was like a stone image: silent, white, motionless after she placed it there.
.......The following can be interpreted as symbols in "Désirée's Baby."
pillar in front of the Valmondé home: Strength and protection. Monsieur Valmondé found Désirée sleeping next to the pillar when she was a baby. As a young woman, she leans against it when Armand notices her.
.......Kate Chopin (1851-1904) is best known for her short stories (more than 100) and a novel, The Awakening. One of her recurring themes—the problems facing women in a society that repressed them—made her literary works highly popular in the late twentieth century. They remain popular today.Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write two to four paragraphs that extend the conclusion of "Désirée's Baby." In these paragraphs, answer at least one of the following questions: Will Armand keep quiet about his mixed racial heritage? Will he have a change of heart and try to reconcile with
Désirée? Will his attitude to slavery and blacks change?