Desiree's Baby | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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Desiree's Baby | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Beginning

As "Désirée's Baby" begins, Madame Valmondé travels to L'Abri, a nearby plantation, to visit her adopted daughter, Désirée, who recently had a baby. As she drives, Madame Valmondé remembers how Désirée arrived in her life. When Désirée was a toddler, Monsieur Valmondé found her asleep at the gates of the Valmondé plantation. Nobody knows whether the child was lost or purposely abandoned, but Madame Valmondé, who had no other children, became a mother to Désirée.

When Désirée grew up, she was "beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere," and so Madame Valmondé understands why her young neighbor, Armand Aubigny, fell in love with Désirée. Armand has lived in town since the death of his mother when he was eight years old, before which he lived in France.

Madame Valmondé reflects on the way Armand "fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot." She even compares his passion to a natural disaster. She thinks Armand's deep feelings are the reason he does not care who Désirée's parents are. Armand brushed off all concerns on this issue, saying his own highly respected family name would be good enough for both of them, and he rushed ahead through the wedding.

A Spell of Happiness

Madame Valmondé dislikes the appearance of L'Abri. She thinks it is gloomy because it has been so long since a woman lived there. Armand's mother died in France, "having loved her own land too well ever to leave it." The elder Aubigny allowed the place to become shadowy and overgrown, and now it is even gloomier because Armand, unlike his father, is so strict with his slaves.

Désirée is lying on a couch holding the baby. When Madame Valmondé sees him, she exclaims, "This is not the baby!" Désirée laughs and says he has grown very fast, and that he cries so loudly her husband can hear it from the cabin of one of the slaves, La Blanche. She brags that he even needed his fingernails clipped already. On this point, she asks for confirmation from Zandrine, the "yellow nurse woman," who handled the fingernail clipping. Madame Valmondé stares at Zandrine, and then she studies the baby closely. She seems to be choosing her words carefully when she says the baby is different now, and she asks what Armand thinks of him.

Delightedly, Désirée tells Madame Valmondé that her husband is thrilled with the baby boy, and that he even claims he would love a girl just as well. Confidingly, Désirée adds that Armand has not beaten any of the slaves since the child was born. "Oh, Mama, I'm so happy; it frightens me," Désirée says.

An Insight

Armand really has grown gentler and kinder since his marriage—and especially since the birth of the child. Désirée, who truly loves him, is thrilled. But one day a few months after her baby's birth, she wakes up with a sense of foreboding. She cannot explain the expressions she sees on the slaves, or the sudden, unexpected visits from neighbors. She is especially worried by the change in her husband, who suddenly seems unable to look at her, and who seems to avoid seeing her or the baby. He grows more violent than ever toward the slaves, and Désirée is "miserable enough to die."

One day, Désirée sits sadly playing with her smooth, sleek hair as she watches her baby sleep on her beautiful, throne-like bed. A slave child, "one of La Blanche's little quadroon boys," fans the baby with peacock feathers to keep him cool. As Désirée ponders the inexplicable unease she feels, she has a sudden, terrifying realization about the similarity between her child and the little slave boy.

Désirée sends the slave boy out of the room and stares at her own child in horror. When her husband comes in, she calls out to him in agony. He does not seem to react to her feelings. He is stiff and cold as she begs him to explain why her child looks the way he does. Her husband says, "It means ... that the child is not white; it means that you are not white."

Knowing how terrible this revelation could be for her, Désirée uncharacteristically argues with her husband. "It is a lie; it is not true," she says. She shows him her hair and eyes and skin. When she calls her skin white, he replies "cruelly" that her skin looks just the same color as La Blanche's. Then he walks out.

A Walk to Death

When Désirée recovers enough to write, she scribbles a letter to Madame Valmondé, saying she is too upset to live.

The reply comes quickly, and Madame Valmondé tells Désirée to come home, "back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child." Désirée takes the letter to her husband and stands like a statue as he reads it.

After reading the letter, Armand coldly tells Désirée to leave him. His behavior has the air of revenge: "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." He does not love her anymore because she has brought shame on him and his name. Désirée leaves in despair, and he refuses even to say goodbye, a decision he considers "his last blow at fate."

Désirée collects her child from Zandrine and leaves immediately, without bothering to change clothes or pack. It is sunset, and she is only in a thin white dress and slippers. As she walks, the setting sun shines off her hair, bringing out its golden color. Avoiding the road, Désirée walks across the field, and the rough ground injures her feet and tears her clothes. She walks straight into the swamp and never comes back out.

The Truth

Weeks later, Armand presides over a huge bonfire. He gives the slaves a cradle, silk dresses, and many other high-quality items, which they burn.

Last of all, Armand burns the letters Désirée wrote him before they married. He took them from a drawer that also contained another letter, this one written years before from his mother to his father. In it, Armand's mother expresses her thanks for her husband's love; even more than that, she says she is grateful 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."

Analysis

Foreshadowing Tragedy

At the beginning, "Désirée's Baby" seems a bit like a fairy tale. Like a character in a fairy tale, Désirée is found as a baby and adopted by loving parents. She grows to embody traits that seem perfect, at least according to her society's judgment of feminine ideals, and she is later married to a fine young man from a well-respected family. However, several elements foreshadow an unhappy ending unlike the ending of many fairy tales.

The narrator goes into some depth about Armand's violently passionate feelings for Désirée. The language used to describe these feelings gives the story a sense of foreboding. He falls in love "as if struck by a pistol shot." His passion moves "like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles." These feelings do not sound safe, either for him or for the sweet, gentle girl he marries. These feelings sound deadly.

Monsieur Valmondé's warnings add a second note of foreboding to the opening section. In the Louisiana Creole culture to which these characters belong, the honor of a family name is important. The tone of the narrative suggests that Armand is arrogant and impulsive when he dismisses such concerns. He says he can give Désirée "one of the oldest and proudest [names] in Louisiana." This apparent lack of concern about his wife's background may seem unremarkable to modern readers, but in the context of the story's culture, Armand's attitude seems overconfident and risky. Stories about people who flaunt their society's values often end unhappily.

Armand's comment about his family name does not only establish his impetuousness; it shows his high position in Creole society and his overwhelming power as a man and husband. The detail suggests that he is widely admired. It also reminds readers that established custom gives Armand the right to confer his name on his wife, in essence to control her identity. In other words, as the narrator hints at an unhappy ending, she also sets up clear power dynamics, thus suggesting that Armand is more likely than other characters to control the events of that ending.

The description of L'Abri cements the feeling of foreboding. The plantation has a gloomy, frightening appearance. Most of the people who live there are enslaved, and they live in fear of Armand who, unlike his father, treats them harshly. The name of Armand's plantation, L'Abri, means "shelter" in French. This name proves to be verbally ironic; L'Abri is the opposite of a safe shelter for Désirée and her child. However, it is worth noting that Armand, the character with the most power, manages to keep the place safe for himself.

A final hint of foreboding appears when Désirée expresses her happiness about her new baby and the change she has seen in her husband since the child's birth. "I'm so happy; it frightens me," she says. This comment indicates that Désirée herself senses a limit to her own potential for happiness. In the brief moment she is able to achieve the life she wants, she fears it will be taken away.

Examining Assumptions and Propriety

Throughout the story, Kate Chopin deftly depicts a society in which propriety prevents people from speaking the truth about the ugliness and hypocrisies in their own attitudes toward race, sex, and slavery. For example, Madame Valmondé's initial response to Désirée's child indicates her unease with the baby's "black" attributes. She does not overtly voice her suspicions because to reveal the racial makeup of this child would be to reveal something the society shunned or for which there could be severe consequences.

Later in the conversation with Madame Valmondé, Désirée comments that her husband is often at La Blanche's cabin and reveals her complete innocence regarding her husband's sexually abusive relationship with La Blanche. By showing Désirée's ignorance, Chopin depicts some of the effects of her society's choice to make certain issues taboo in polite conversation. Armand, the man in power, faces fewer consequences for his actions as long as his wife is unaware of what is happening. Désirée, meanwhile, is in a greater position to be hurt by Armand's actions as long as they are hidden from her view.

When Désirée discovers the similarities between her child and La Blanche's son, her realization is twofold: she sees not only the racial signs the two children share but also the physical characteristics of their shared parentage. Her open-ended question, "what does this mean?" is not only a question regarding race but also about the fidelity of her husband.

Chopin also examines society's assumptions about people based on wealth and social status. Throughout the story, she highlights the obscurity of Désirée's origins and establishes Armand as a powerful and well-respected member of his society. Désirée is a foundling, and the narrator emphasizes that her parentage is unknown. Meanwhile, the narrator mentions several times that Armand is the son of a Frenchwoman and that he grew up in France. Madame Valmondé believes Armand's mother "loved her own land too well ever to leave it," a belief that probably reflects the beliefs of the people in her social circles. Only in the final sentence does the narrator reveal that Armand's mother has African blood.

Chopin arranges all this information carefully, guiding the reader to discount Armand as the possible source of the African American racial characteristics people perceive in the baby. Even modern readers, whose attitudes toward race may be worlds different from the attitudes of Chopin's contemporaries, are likely to assume Armand is "pure" white until the very end.

Chopin's Attitudes toward Racism and Slavery

There are many ambiguities in Chopin's story, and it is difficult to determine her precise views on racism and slavery. However, the evidence suggests that her attitudes differ from those of her contemporaries. Chopin's contemporaries tended to glorify the Old South and gloss over the ugliness of slavery. Chopin does nothing of the sort. She makes slavery sound ugly, openly acknowledging not only Armand's physical abuse of the people he enslaves, but also the widespread social acceptance of this abuse.

Madame Valmondé is so inured to the cruelty of slavery that she takes it for granted as she muses on the gloominess of Armand's plantation: "Young Aubigny's rule was a strict one ... and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay." In other words, Madame Valmondé thinks of the slaves' unhappiness not out of any concern for their well-being but as an inconvenience to herself because it makes Armand's plantation less pleasant to visit.

Désirée is naive about slavery because she has been shielded from the horrors of slavery by her own family. Her attitude underscores the brutality of a society that allows people to own other human beings. When Désirée is exulting about her baby's birth, she comments that Armand "hasn't punished one of [the slaves]—not one of them—since baby is born." This shows that she hates it when her husband physically abuses his slaves. But it also shows that this abuse happens. She clearly regards it as the norm and apparently makes no attempt to stop it, even though she dislikes it.

Chopin also hints at the culture of sexual exploitation of women who were enslaved. When Désirée brags about her baby's strong cry, she mentions her husband hearing the child from "as far away as La Blanche's cabin." La Blanche is one of Armand's slaves. Her name means "the white one" in French, which suggests she is light-skinned. By mentioning Armand spending time at La Blanche's cabin, Chopin raises the possibility that Armand abuses her sexually. If this is the case, Armand may be the father of the "little quadroon boy" who appears later in the story and who looks disconcertingly similar to Désirée's baby.

Chopin also reveals the complex ramifications of widespread racism on society. These are especially clear in her characters' varied reactions to the appearance of Désirée's baby, who apparently appears African American. When Madame Valmondé sees the child for the first time in a month, she seems surprised and concerned. "This is not the baby!" she says. Désirée, caught up in the emotions of new motherhood, fails to pick up on the strangeness of this comment. But Madame Valmondé's attitude suggests something is wrong. She studies the child and looks "searchingly" at Zandrine, an enslaved woman who has clipped his fingernails. In the 19th century, people believed the appearance of the fingernails showed a person's true racial heritage. Evidently Madame Valmondé thinks Zandrine knows if the baby is partly African American or not. But Madame Valmondé does not openly say that the child may not be white. Her circumspection is evidence of social taboos surrounding miscegenation and of the likely consequences for everyone involved if other people also see African American features in the child.

Armand reacts to the child's appearance with anger. He is cold and dismissive toward Désirée and the baby, and he grows more violent than usual toward the slaves. He claims Désirée's heritage is the reason for the baby's appearance, and he ultimately rejects both her and his child. Désirée, the last person to recognize the African American features in the baby, reacts with horror. She repeatedly says she will die. And when her husband finally rejects her, she likely kills herself rather than facing life as a person of mixed race.

Significantly, Chopin never actually describes the baby. She only describes people's reactions to him: Madame Valmondé's worry, Armand's cold fury, and Désirée's horror. By omitting any details about the actual person whose appearance causes all these feelings, Chopin communicates some of the dehumanizing nature of racism. The feelings and judgments that swirl around the baby are all about race, not about the baby himself.

Désirée's Powerlessness and Death

Throughout the story, Désirée's interactions with Armand indicate the power of her husband over her life. This is particularly clear at the end of the story, when Désirée realizes her baby may not be white. Note that she is unable to state her fears out loud, instead turning to him for his interpretation. This gives him the power to frame the truth in his own way—and his explanation is, in the context of their racist society, a condemnation: "It means ... that the child is not white; it means that you are not white." Both Désirée and Armand are the parents of the baby, but only Désirée is openly accused of nonwhite heritage. (Note that nobody ever raises the possibility Désirée had an affair; Désirée's genuine surprise and her general air of innocence both make that seem unlikely.)

Until the confrontation with Armand, Désirée has seemed basically content to live within the constraints of her society. She fell in love with the man who decided to marry her, and she accepted his angry nature as an unchangeable fact of life. But when Armand tells Désirée she is "not white," she goes against her nature and argues with him. "It is a lie!" she says. Elsewhere, she easily embodies the passivity and submissiveness expected from women in her society; here, she makes a strong stand against her husband, even offering evidence, citing the appearance of her hair, eyes, and skin, to support her point of view.

Désirée does not openly accuse Armand of having nonwhite heritage, and it is unclear whether or not she suspects it. Perhaps she is making a subtle accusation when she points out that her skin is "whiter than yours, Armand." Armand shuts her down easily, saying her skin is "as white as La Blanche's." La Blanche, whose name means "the white one," is one of the slaves at L'Abri. Several hints in the story suggest that Armand has fathered one or more of her children. The narrator says that Armand is speaking "cruelly" when he compares Désirée to La Blanche. This may be because he is equating Désirée with a slave or because he is reminding his wife of what he has the power to do to women like La Blanche—or both.

The narrator does not reveal any of Désirée's thoughts when she walks into the bayou with her baby, so it is impossible to know her exact reasons for apparently choosing to kill herself and her child. Her husband has just rejected her on the suspicion that she and her child are "not white." In their white-dominated, male-dominated, tradition-oriented society, people are likely to accept what he says. Even Madame Valmondé, who writes that she still loves and accepts Désirée, does not contradict the conclusion that the young woman has African American heritage. This means that Désirée no longer belongs to the white society she has always known and that she and her son would face a future as second-class citizens.

If Désirée suspects the truth about Armand's heritage, her suspicions might contribute to her decision to walk away from her life. She may be overwhelmed by the fact that she cannot prove the truth, horrified by the suspicion that she unknowingly married and had a child with a mixed-race man, or be devastated to think that the man she loves would rather reject her than face the social consequences of being revealed as a person of color.

The descriptions of Désirée's appearance throughout the story support the interpretation that she is white. For example, when she asks Armand if he wants her to leave, she is "silent, white, motionless." And as she walks toward the bayou, the narrator emphasizes the "golden gleam" of her hair. However, it is important to note that Désirée could have some African heritage. As the story makes clear, there is no easy way of defining racial features. One of the takeaways from this story is that it is impossible to know the facts about anyone's heritage and that placing too much importance on that heritage could lead to tragedy.

Armand's Precarious Position

Critics disagree on whether or not Armand knows his heritage from the beginning of the story. Literary critic Margaret D. Bauer believes that Armand is intentionally "passing" as white. If Bauer is correct, Armand marries Désirée not in spite of her unknown parentage, but because of it. He hopes his children will look white, but he plans from the outset to blame Désirée if the children appear otherwise. In this view Armand's rejection of Désirée and his son is cynically motivated to deflect suspicion from himself. When he holds the bonfire at the end of the story, his reading of his mother's note could be an act of penance or perhaps a cold reaffirmation of his decision to hide his secret.

Not all critics take Bauer's view; many, if not most, believe that Armand learns of his heritage at the same moment the reader does. Readers who take this view believe Armand's love for Désirée is genuine but that his extreme racism outweighs any tender feelings he has for her. In this view Armand rejected his wife and child for qualities that were actually his own, too.

This modernist ending does not answer the readers' questions about whether Armand knew of his heritage but leaves open the question so readers have to ponder it. Either way, Armand is not only racist but is a victim of racism. If he is intentionally "passing" as white, he has sacrificed his wife and child to protect his social standing, personal safety, and ownership over the property he inherited from his father. If he is discovering his heritage in the final moments of the story, he will have to spend the rest of his life knowing he let his family die because of a mistaken conclusion. Either way, Chopin suggests that it is not only people of a certain race who are "cursed with the brand of slavery." People who live in this society are also cursed, so much so that some of them would die or allow their whole families to die rather than be associated with the race they abhor.

Desiree's Baby Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Madame Valmondé goes to visit Désirée and the baby.

Rising Action

2 Désirée realizes something is wrong but does not know what.

3 Désirée notices that her child has mixed-race features.

4 Armand tells Désirée that she and the child are not white.

Climax

5 Armand tells Désirée to leave.

Falling Action

6 Désirée walks into the bayou and is never seen again.

Resolution

7 Armand reads proof of his own mixed-race heritage.

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