Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
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.
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.
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
man who inherited his father's plantation, L'Abri. After he marries Désirée,
they live at L'Abri.
The Baby: Male child
of Armand and Désirée. Désirée notices several
months after his birth that his physical characteristics are those of a
person of mixed racial ancestry.
Monsieur and Madame Valmondé:
Childless husband and wife who found Désirée when she was
a baby. After adopting her, they lovingly reared her.
La Blanche: Female
slave of mixed ancestry.
slave who helps Désirée care for her child.
Negrillon: Male slave
who pretends to have suffered a leg burn in order to be excused from work.
Deceased Parents of Armand
lived in Paris with Armand until Madame Aubigny died. Armand was eight
years old at the time. His father then brought the boy to Louisiana. Armand
inherited L'Abri after Monsieur Aubigny died.
Neighbors Who Visit L'Abri
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
Michael J. Cummings.©
Madame Valmondé drives over to see Désirée and her
baby for the first time in a month, she remembers when Désirée
herself was a baby. Her husband had found Désirée sleeping
next to a pillar as he rode through the gateway of the Valmondé
home in southern Louisiana. No one knew where she came from or who put
her there. The Valmondés adopted and reared her.
was eighteen years before. Désirée is now a “beautiful and
gentle, affectionate and sincere" young lady," the narrator says. Armand
Aubigny had known her since he was eight, when his father brought him to
America from Paris after his mother died. But it was not until he
saw her when she was a fully grown young lady that he fell in love with
her. At the time, he was riding by the Valmondé residence while
she was in front of the house.
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 narrator says.
long afterward, they became husband and wife.
Madame Valmondé arrives at the stuccoed Aubigny home, its appearance
unsettles her, as it always does.
roof came down steep and black like a cowl," the narrator says, and the
shade of oak trees surrounding the dwelling suggested that it was a tomb
rather than a house. The Negroes who man the place are dispirited, for
Armand is a demanding master. When his father was in charge, they were
in high spirits.
Madame Valmondé enters the house, Désirée is on a
couch holding the baby. It is asleep. Standing at a window is the baby's
nurse, Zandrine. Madame is surprised at how the child, a boy, has grown.
Désirée tells her mother that Armand is pleased with the
child—so much so that his mood has lightened and he no longer punishes
any of the Negroes. His happiness makes Désirée happy, for
she is deeply in love with him.
when the baby is three months old, a dark spirit descends over Armand.
He is sullen and stern. Gone from his eyes is the gleam of love for his
wife. Sometimes he stays away from home for long periods.
the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings
with the slaves," the narrator says.
hot afternoon while sitting in her bedroom, Désirée experiences
an uneasy feeling as she fingers the strands of her hair. On the bed, her
baby sleeps soundly. A quadroon boy is fanning him. When she looks at her
child, then at the quadroon—the son of La Blanche, one of their slaves—her
“blood turned like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon
her face," the narrator says. She dismisses the boy. A short while later,
Armand enters the room to search through documents on a table. Désirée
rises, walks over to him, and says, “Armand, look at our child. What does
it means, he tells her, is that their child is not white and that Désirée
is not white. She refuses to accept his answer, pointing out that her hair
is brown, her eyes are gray, and her skin is white.
white as La Blanche's," he says. He leaves the room.
immediately writes a letter to Madame Valmondé, saying, “"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."
reply neither confirms nor denies that Désirée is white.
It simply tells
Désirée to return home with her baby—“back
to your mother who loves you." Désirée shows her mother's
letter to Armand and asks him whether he wants her to go. “Yes," he says,
“I want you to go."
of the injury she had caused him, he no longer loves her. Now it is her
time to suffer, he thinks, and well she should. Without changing out of
her slippers and white gown, Désirée fetches her baby from
the nurse and walks away, out into the late-afternoon sun of the October
day. Rather than following the road to Valmondé, she goes through
stubbly fields that hurt her feet and tear at her gown.
later at L'Abri, the Negroes tend a bonfire in which Armand burns the baby's
cradle, its clothes, Désirée's gowns, and her embroideries,
gloves, and bonnets. From a drawer in the house, he withdraws the letters
he had received from her during their courtship. They, too, will burn.
In the same drawer, he discovers a letter his mother had written to his
father, expressing thanks to God for the love she received from her husband.
Armand reads it. It says, in part, “I thank 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."
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
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."
climax occurs when Désirée realizes that her baby is of mixed
racial heritage. This moment precipitates the tragic events that follow.
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.
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?
After he discovered that
his child was a mixed ancestry, it was easy for him to conclude that his
wife was the one with Désirée was the one with mixed blood
in her veins.
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"
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
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
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."
it is likely that what distresses Désirée is not her and
her baby's racial heritage per se. Rather, it is a fear that Armand will
reject them because he views them as racially impure. Her fear, of course,
is well founded.
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.
cochon de lait:
for wedding gifts or trousseau. Literally, the word means basket.
for a newborn baby.
negligee or bathrobe.
descended from one black grandparent and three white grandparents.
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.
are examples of other figures of speech:
And the very spirit
of Satan seemed
to take hold of him
sun's rays brought a golden
She did not take the broad,
In the centre of the smoothly
back yard was a great bonfire.
striving to penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about
Comparison of the atmosphere
in Désirée's room to a mist
"Armand," she called to him,
in a voice which must have stabbed him
Comparison of Désirée's
voice to a knife
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. . . .
Comparison of the rush
of Armand's passion to the movement of an avalanche and a prairie fire
The roof came down steep
and black like a cowl
Comparison of the pitch
of the roof to that of a monk's hood
their thick-leaved, far-reaching
branches shadowed it like a pall
Comparison of the shadows
cast by an oak tree to 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.
Comparison of the bed
to a throne
The blood turned like ice
in her veins
Comparison of blood to
She was like a stone image:
silent, white, motionless after she placed it there.
Comparison of Désirée
to a statue
following can be interpreted as symbols in "Désirée's Baby."
pillar in front of the
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.
L'Abri: The foreboding
appearance of this plantation home symbolizes Armand's dark moods.
bonfire: The destruction
of the memory of Désirée and the baby.
October sunset: The
ending of Désirée's marriage to Armand.
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
Questions and Essay Topics
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?
people of mixed racial heritage suffer widespread prejudice in modern society?
an essay explaining what a typical day was like for a slave laborer on
a cotton plantation.
you the child of a black parent and a white parent? If so, explain to your
classmates the reaction of people when they learn of your background.