Desiree's Baby | Study Guide

Kate Chopin

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Desiree's Baby | Themes

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The Power of Social Perceptions

From the beginning of "Désirée's Baby", Kate Chopin puts social perceptions in the forefront. The story begins with Madame Valmondé, not with Désirée herself as readers might expect from the title. Madame Valmondé muses that "some people" think one way about Désirée's origins, but that "the prevailing belief" drifts in another direction. Notably, there is no clear truth, nor is there any suggestion of Désirée's own opinions about where she came from. This focus on external social perceptions lays the groundwork for a resolution in which the truth about Désirée is less important than her society's perceptions of the truth.

Social perceptions and roles are also strongly built into the details the narrator reveals about Désirée's marriage. In the passage about Armand seeing Désirée, falling in love, and arranging for a wedding, Désirée plays no active role. It is revealed later in the story that Désirée loves Armand, but the narrator mentions this only in passing, suggesting her feelings are of secondary relevance. Her marriage is something Armand decides to do and then does. Even Madame Valmondé, who sees herself as Désirée's mother, thinks of the marriage as if Désirée is an object of a transaction.

Throughout the story, Chopin intentionally exposes the ways her society prevents honest assessment of racial violence and slavery. Ugly truths, such as the common practice of white men raping female slaves, are never discussed openly. This practice is why Madame Valmondé does not speak openly when she thinks she sees African features in Désirée's baby. It is also why Désirée is apparently unaware of what her husband does at La Blanche's cabin. Désirée would not have any power to stop her husband from raping La Blanche, but Désirée's innocence makes it easier for Armand because he can do what he wants without having to deal with her reactions. Désirée's naivety also makes it more difficult for her to see what others see in her child and to react to the consequences of society's judgments.

When Désirée's husband accuses her of having mixed-race heritage, her first instinct is to cite physical evidence to oppose him. When this does not work, she writes to her adoptive mother to ask her to contradict the accusation. The wording of her note is significant: "Armand has told me I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true." Here, Désirée asks her mother to explain the truth to an unidentified plural "them." In other words Désirée is not only worried about the opinion of her husband; she is focused on the beliefs of a wider community, presumably all the members of her elite white Louisiana Creole social circle. When Madame Valmondé replies, she is loving and accepting, but she does not do as Désirée asks. Not knowing Désirée's parentage, Madame Valmondé cannot verify her adoptive daughter's race. Armand, who has higher status because of his gender and family name, will control the narrative. Désirée will face the social stigma regardless of the actual truth. She is in a position of absolute powerlessness to control the perceptions of people around her.

The Pain of Racism

Racism in "Désirée's Baby" is a painful and dehumanizing force that destroys lives. Set in 19th-century Louisiana before the abolition of slavery, the story's main characters are either white or, at the outset, socially accepted among white people. The narrator does not reveal the thoughts of any of the slaves who appear in the story. However, the main characters' thoughts and words reveal the cruelty of slavery. Désirée celebrates when her husband refrains from physically harming the slaves, but she seems to accept his right to do so if he chooses. Madame Valmondé thinks about Armand's physical abuse of his slaves only in the context of her own discomfort at the gloominess of his plantation. She has so thoroughly forgotten or denied their humanity that their well-being does not seem to enter her mind.

For the white characters in the story, racism seems beneficial on the surface, but it causes deep pain and damage nevertheless. Armand's father is a clear example of this. Like the other white plantation owners in the story, he kept human beings as property. Madame Valmondé remembers him as "easy-going and indulgent" with the slaves, but this does not change the fact that he benefited from their work within a deeply unfair and inhumane social system. But on a personal level, Armand's father had to struggle with his society's racism. He fell in love with a woman of African heritage and had to leave his home country in order to legally marry her. Perhaps ashamed or unwilling to let his heir be harmed by the pain of racism, he hid his wife's racial heritage from his son. This secret allowed Armand to participate in elite white society in Louisiana, but whether Armand was truly ignorant of his heritage or purposely keeping it concealed, his father's actions helped lead to the story's tragedy.

Armand lives as a white man and clings to the unfair benefits the system gives him in that capacity, but at a steep and painful cost. He clearly puts great value on his social standing, bragging that his name is "one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana." He also owns human beings, sometimes embodying "the very spirit of Satan" in his treatment of them. If he knows all along about his own mixed-race heritage, as the critic Margaret D. Bauer suggests, his pride and cruelty may stem from a desperate need to make himself feel superior. If he does not know, his actions and attitude are simply folly leading to his ruin. Either way, Armand's need to preserve his social position runs so deep that he rejects his wife and son rather than accept the stigma of remaining associated with them. When they die, he burns their possessions, an act that may be an expression of grief, a display of hatred, or both. The final lines of the story reveal that Armand is the child of a slave. This surprise ending reveals a deeply painful truth, whether this is Armand's first time learning of this or not. Armand's racism is directed toward himself. He is not free to share the truth with anyone lest he lose everything he has. And he cannot safely marry and produce a child again because if the next child appears African American, he will almost certainly be found out.

Désirée is perhaps the most extreme example of the pain racism causes everyone, regardless of race. Although Désirée's heritage is probably white, she is irrevocably harmed when her husband labels her as "not white." Many contemporary readers are offended by racism, and because of this, many may struggle to empathize with a character that hears she is "not white" and writes to her mother, "I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live." But Désirée is a product of her society, and her reaction stems from more than gut-level hatred or revulsion toward people of a certain race. When Armand first says why the baby does not look white, Désirée has "a quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her." In the context of her society, being accused of having African blood means that her marriage was never legal and that her baby is illegitimate. The elite white society to which she has always belonged will now consider her to be a second-class citizen. Her mother claims to love her and want her, but virtually every other aspect of her identity will be lost to her if she is "not white." Her decision to walk away from her life—and perhaps even to kill herself and her baby—is a reaction of despair in the face of her own powerlessness to avoid a terrible fate.

The Absurdity of Arbitrary Racial Distinctions

"Désirée's Baby" points out the absurdity of attempting to classify human beings neatly into distinct racial categories. To the characters in the story, a person is "not white" if they have even a tiny amount of African heritage. But some people clearly appear white in spite of such heritage. Status is not conferred on people because they earn it or because they look a certain way; it comes through the circumstances of birth. People assume Armand is white, even though his mother was not, because his father was white and well-respected and, most importantly, because his father treated Armand as his son. In contrast, some light-skinned people in the story are enslaved merely because their mothers were enslaved. One woman, La Blanche, has a name meaning "the white one," suggesting that she is light skinned, but she lives as a slave on Armand's plantation. La Blanche's children are also light skinned and are probably Armand's children. Kate Chopin shows one of La Blanche's boys forced to labor at caring for Désirée's baby—possibly his own brother—while the baby naps on a luxurious bed. The obvious disparities between the two boys' lives emphasizes that it is social acceptance, not any other quality, that allows one to live in privilege while the other lives as a slave.

Kate Chopin subtly reinforces this point with her choice to refrain from describing the baby's physical features. Instead, she shows her characters' reactions—Madame Valmondé's suspicion and surprise, Désirée's horror, and Armand's fury. The author only hints at what causes all these emotions until Armand says the reason out loud: "It means ... that the child is not white." But even he does not say how the child is different from white people. He simply states the problem and rejects the child forever. The consequences of this are so enormous that Désirée appears to give up on life, apparently choosing to kill herself and her baby rather than go on living.

It is absolutely clear that the baby is an innocent victim of racism. It is absurdly cruel for his father to reject him and his mother to likely kill him because they and others see mixed-race features in him. By making this cruelty a focal point of her story, Kate Chopin may be suggesting that it is also absurd to exclude a mixed-race child from high-status society.

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