Imagine the contrast of life on an antebellum plantation in the American South—the beautiful, regal estate built upon the backbreaking work and racism of slavery. In her short story "Desiree's Baby" (1893), Kate Chopin (1851-1904) depicts the downfall of the seemingly perfect lives of wealthy, French Creole plantation owners due to the mystery of a mixed-race baby. In this piece of short fiction, Chopin explores the themes of love, racism, marriage, status, and God, through seemingly stereotypical characters who act irrationally when confronted by situations of racial complexity.
"Desiree’s Baby" takes place on a plantation in the American South. Southern plantations typically had grand, regal houses surrounded by an abundance of land.
Desiree's Baby Background Information
"Desiree’s Baby" is a short story written by Kate Chopin, the American author and novelist famous for the early feminist novel, The Awakening (1899). Kate Chopin wrote "Desiree’s Baby" in 1892, and it was first published in Vogue magazine on January 14, 1893. In 1894, "Desiree’s Baby" was published in Chopin’s book of short stories, Bayou Folk, which features 23 short fiction stories about different characters living in nineteenth-century Louisiana.
Kate Chopin was born and raised in the American South during and after the time of the Civil War. She lived primarily in St. Louis, Missouri and New Orleans, Louisiana. Kate Chopin’s mother was French Creole, so Chopin grew up with an interest in French language and culture. Kate Chopin was known and admired for her incorporation of French dialect in her writings, as seen in "Desiree’s Baby."
The French dialect in "Desiree’s Baby"
In the short story, Kate Chopin uses French vocabulary in italics to embed the French Creole culture and dialect that the characters are immersed in. Though the story is written in English, Chopin mentions that the characters frequently speak in French.
Here are some vocabulary words and expressions featured in the story:
- L' Abri: French for the shelter, the name of the Aubingy plantation.
- Corbeille: a corbeille de mariage is a French wedding basket full of luxurious and decorative items given to a bride by her suitor upon signing their wedding contract. It is part of a woman’s dowry and symbolizes her entering into adulthood.
- Cochin de lait: suckling pig.
- Mais si, Madame: Yes indeed, Mrs.
- Peignoir: a light dressing grown worn by women.
- Layette: a set of clothing and toiletries for a newborn baby.
What effect do you think Kate Chopin's use of French dialect has in "Desiree’s Baby"?
Desiree's Baby Summary
The story opens with Madame Valmonde driving to see her daughter and her new grandchild at a neighboring plantation. Madame Valmonde reminisces about how it feels as if it were only yesterday that her daughter, Desiree, was just a baby herself. She thinks about how her husband, Monsieur Valmonde, found Desiree as a toddler asleep in the shadow of a stone pillar at the gateway of their plantation years ago.
There are different theories about who left Desiree at the pillar and why, but Madame Valmonde only considers the appearance of the child as God’s providence, as she was not able to have her own biological children. Desiree grew up to be “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere, —the idol of Valmonde.” 1
18 years after being found by the Valmondes, Desiree was spotted by Armand Aubingy while standing “against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep” 1 as a baby. He instantly fell in love with her. Though Desiree's Father warned Armand of Desiree's unknown heritage, he showers her with lavish gifts and they marry.
After a month of not seeing her daughter or the baby, Madame Valmonde approaches Aubingy’s estate, which she sees as a “sad-looking place.” 1 Madame Valmonde enters the estate to find Desiree “in soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch,” 1 with the baby asleep at her breast. Madame Valmonde kisses her daughter, and turns to look at the baby declaring, “‘This is not the baby!’” 1 in a startled manner.
Madame Valmonde nervously scrutinizes the child, and she asks Desiree what Armand says about the child. Desiree replies that he is so happy to have a male heir that the child has softened Armand's disposition, making him gentler even with the slaves. Desiree expresses her extreme happiness with Armand’s happiness and their marital and familial bliss.
Time goes by and Chopin writes, “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.” 1 Desiree still cannot quite put her finger on what is wrong, but she hears the slaves gossiping and has unexpected visits from neighbors who live far away. Soon, Armand begins to act strangely, ignoring her and the baby and dealing harshly with the slaves. Chopin writes that “Desiree was miserable enough to die.”1
Desiree finally discovers what is wrong one day as the child is lying on her large bed, being fanned by “one of La Blanche’s little quadroon boys.”1 Desiree looks to the mixed-race boy, and back to her own son, and notices they have the same skin color. She wants to scream but cannot find the voice.
The term quadroon was used during the times of slavery in America to describe a person who was one-fourth African and three-fourths European. The word has racist connotations, suggesting an impurity of race.
Armand enters the room and Desiree confronts him. While Armand is still cold and aloof, Desiree clutches his arm and says, “look at our child. What does it mean? tell me.” 1 Armand replies that it means the child is not white, and so Desiree must not be white. Desiree becomes hysteric.
Armand tells Desiree and the child to leave. Desiree writes to her mother desperately for confirmation that she is white. Madame Valmonde replies, “My own Desiree: Come home to Valmonde; back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child.” 1
Desiree does not return, but rather, commits suicide by taking her child and disappearing into the Louisiana Bayou. Weeks later, Armand is spotted having a big bonfire in his yard. He orders his slaves to burn the belongings of Desiree and their baby.
While looking for the letters written during their engagement to burn, Armand comes across a letter written from his mother to his father. Armand finds out that he is the one who is part black as his mother had black heritage and she and his father decided to keep it a secret from him.
Desiree's Baby Analysis
In the short story "Desiree's Baby", Kate Chopin uses literary devices such as symbolism, foreshadowing, similes, and situational irony to cue readers to recognize when something is not quite right.
Analysis of Literary Devices Used in the Beginning of "Desiree's Baby"
Kate Chopin cleverly uses third-person omniscient narration to reveal the background information of Desiree’s life and situation through Madame Valmonde’s thoughts as she travels to see her daughter. Through this introduction, Chopin emphasizes that Desiree's heritage is unknown and that Armand refuses to consider this when marrying her.
The fact that Desiree is found in the shadow of a stone pillar symbolizes how her life is overshadowed by authority, aristocracy, and tradition. Kate Chopin foreshadows early on that Desiree’s ethnicity is unknown, setting it up as a conflict for later in the story.
Kate Chopin uses similes to suggest the impulsive and destructive nature of Armand’s passionate love. She writes that when Armand sees her by the pillar he is struck by love “as if struck by a pistol.” 1 Chopin continues to write that “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.” 1
Though it outwardly appears like Armand and Desiree make a picturesque pair, Kate Chopin foreshadows that there is an air of instability and destructive capability in Armand‘s manner.
Analysis of Literary Devices Used to Describe the Aubingy Estate in "Desiree's Baby"
Kate Chopin uses the imagery of the estate to create an eerie atmosphere, and further foreshadow that something is wrong at the Aubingy estate. Madame Valmonde observes that “The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house.” 1
The word choice of “cowl” helps create the image of a black cape enclosing the yellow house, suggesting death, covering, or hiding. Kate Chopin connects this imagery to Aubigny’s management of his slaves, stating that “Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay.” 1
Kate Chopin contrasts the foreboding imagery of Armand’s estate with the serene picture of Desiree “in soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch,” 1 with the baby asleep at her breast. The white lace symbolizes Desiree’s innocence and delicateness.
Analysis of Literary Devices Used to Describe Desiree's Understanding of the Problem with her Child in "Desiree's Baby"
Chopin uses situational irony in the scene in which Madame Valmonde sees that something is wrong with the child, but Desiree does not. When Madame Valmonde declares, “This is not the baby!” 1 Desiree thinks that her mother is surprised by how much the baby has grown. She adds that the maid, Zandrine, even had to cut his fingernails this morning.
Chopin builds humor and absurdity through the irony of the situation, as Madame Valmonde is horrified to find that the baby looks part black, and Desiree has no idea that her mother is concerned. Seeing Armand smiling and satisfied is all that matters to Desiree.
Kate Chopin writes that when Desiree finally realizes her child is the same color as the quadroon boy, “The blood turned like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face.” 1 Chopin uses this simile to imply Desiree’s horror in finding that her son has some black heritage.
Desiree has an epiphany as she finally understands that her baby's skin color is why everyone has been acting so strangely. Though she was previously blind to his color because of her love and happiness, her life is forever changed by the realization.
Analysis of Literary Devices Used in the Ending of "Desiree's Baby"
Fire symbolizes Armand's rage and destruction as he burns the belongings of his wife and son. Ironically, fire and passion are used to describe his love for Desiree at the beginning of the story. Kate Chopin uses the symbol of fire to suggest the destructive capacity of passionate love.
Kate Chopin ends the story with the words of Armand’s mother in the letter, which read, “Night and day, I thank the good 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." 1 This statement solidifies the story’s striking situational irony, as Armand finds out about his black heritage while he is reveling in his superiority and disgust with his own wife and son for being associated with the black race.
Desiree's Baby Characters
Kate Chopin creates characters based on gender and social class stereotypes. However, each character defines their stereotype in their capacity for love, or for hatred.
Desiree Valmonde is the protagonist of the story. She is the adopted daughter of the wealthy plantation owners, Madame Valmonde and Monsieur Valmonde. Desiree is found as a toddler in the shadow of a stone pillar at the gates of their estate, and her origin and race are unknown. The Valmondes adore Desiree, and she grows up to be beautiful and lovely in manner. She marries Armand, and has her own baby. Desiree has white skin, brown hair, and grey eyes. She finds her happiness in the joy and approval of her husband.
Desiree represents the traditional feminine ideal of a beautiful woman who is innocent and lives to serve her husband. She is delicate, tenderly cares for her child, wears nice clothes, and is overjoyed by marital life when her husband is happy with her. Kate Chopin uses Desiree as an example of a woman who lives up to every traditional feminine ideal, is selfless in her love for her family, and yet ends up feeling entirely desperate due to placing her worth in the hands of a cruel man.
Armand Aubigny is a wealthy French Creole whose family owns a large cotton plantation. He is very intense in temperament and self-assured. He decides that he loves Desiree in one instance of seeing her, marries her quickly, and spoils and dotes on her.
Aubigny is known for being a harsh, frightening master to the slaves, but his treatment of them lightens upon the birth of his baby with Desiree. Armand is tall, dark, and handsome, as well as status-conscious, prideful, and inclined to rage. Though he is self-assured in his opinions, he is also fickle, as he passionately loves Desiree and his baby one minute, and then abandons and scorns them the next.
Armand Aubigny represents the traditional male ideal of a man who is handsome, strong, decisive, and dominant. He calls all the shots, but is also temperamental and can be quite cruel. While Desiree ignores his flaws and basks in his happiness, Armand abandons her for the flaw of her supposed race, which she has no control over. While Desiree is forgiving and dependent on his approval, he does not care for her if she in any way harms his own image and ego. His love is not true, but conditional based on his own desires and pridefulness.
Madame Valmonde is Desiree’s adoptive mother. She is the first character introduced in the story, and her thoughts allow Chopin to share the background of Desiree’s life. Madame Valmonde was unable to have her own children and views finding Desiree as a baby as God’s providence. Madame Valmonde is wealthy and characteristically status and race-conscious, yet this does not get in the way of her love for Desiree. She adores her daughter and offers her unconditional love and support, even after finding out about the baby’s color.
La Blanche is a female slave who is light-skinned. The name La Blanche translates to ‘the white one’. She is mixed-race, but has light skin, and her children are called quadroons, as they are one-fourth black.
The Quadroon Boy
The quadroon boy is the son of La Blanche. He fans Desiree’s baby as he sleeps and Desiree finally realizes that her baby is not fully white when she compares her son’s skin color to the skin color of the quadroon boy.
Desiree's Baby Setting
"Desiree’s Baby" is set in a French Creole community of plantations in 19th century Louisiana. The story takes place during the antebellum period, before the Civil War (1861-1865). Southern plantation estates were typically regal, large, and impressive. During this time period, there were numerous cotton plantations and slaves working on them in the rural American south.
Desiree and Armond live on a cotton plantation named L' Abri, which means 'the shelter' in French. This is ironic because rather than being safe and comforting, the plantation's estate is described with eerie and foreboding imagery. Madame Valmonde observes that the place is not well kept, as its prior mistress has died, and even while she was alive, she was hardly there to take care of the property.
Kate Chopin emphasizes the nature and scenery of the rural landscape and the Louisiana bayou, or swamp. She describes the encompassing oak trees and at the end of the story, Desiree disappears "among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again." 1
The bayou is a marshy wetland or swamp, which lends an eerie atmosphere to Desiree's disappearance. It is suggested that nature encompasses her as she allows the sun to shine down on her hair and the stubble to bruise her feet and shred her gown, as she goes off with her child to commit suicide.
The swampy landscape of the Louisiana Bayou creates an eerie atmosphere associated with Desiree’s death.
Themes of Desiree's Baby
Chopin had a definite agenda when writing this story, which is clearly seen through these themes.
The theme of love is present all throughout "Desiree's Baby." Kate Chopin contrasts the differences between fleeting, passionate, romantic love, and the steady, adoring, unconditional love of a mother. Desiree and Armand are swept up in the fairy tale of romantic love and marital bliss. However, when challenges arise and Armand feels his status is being threatened and compromised by Desiree and the baby's presence, he bluntly decides he no longer loves them out of anger and pride.
Desiree's love for Armand stands truer, yet is also flawed. She is overjoyed at his expressions of joy and despairs in his discontent, but ultimately, her understanding of her worth and even her child's worth is based on Armand's opinions and approval.
In contrast, Chopin presents a mother's love as unconditional, adoring, and prevailing. Mothers are presented as always being there for their children and hoping to prevent their children from pain. Madame Valmonde welcomes Desiree with open arms, despite Desiree not being her biological child. She does not worry about Desiree's origin because her love for her overshadows worries and doubts.
When Desiree is distraught and writes to her mother for confirmation of her white heritage, Madame Valmonde simply replies, "My own Desiree: Come home to Valmonde; back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child.'' 1 She accepts Desiree and desires to give her comfort and safety despite the difficulties that are likely to follow due to the questioning of her race and the color of her child.
In addition, Madame Aubingy seeks to protect her child, Armand, by sparing him from the knowledge of his African blood. Even Desiree, in her hysteric hopelessness, likely believes she is saving her child from a life of pain and suffering by disappearing into the bayou.
In "Desiree’s Baby," Kate Chopin suggests that the strongest love is that of a mother for her child.
Race, Racism, and Slavery
The ideas of race and racism are present all throughout the story, as the French Creole plantation owners are color-conscious slave owners. Desiree's unknown origin is brought up at the beginning of the story, as her father suggests to Armand that he should be careful in marrying her because she could be of mixed race.
The slaves are referred to with derogatory names associated with their skin color, such as La Blanche, Negrillon, and "the quadroon boy". Kate Chopin uses these names to emphasize how race and color determined the perception of people's worth. Racism is so extreme in the rural American South that even people who are fair and look completely white such as Desiree and Madame Aubingy could be entirely cast out if found out to have any African blood.
Ultimately, Kate Chopin points to the absurdity and harmfulness of this obsession about race, as Desiree kills herself and his child over rumors of her having African blood. Chopin explores the theme of miscegenation, which is the mixing of races through marriage or sex. She points to the conundrum of how it is so common, yet also greatly condemned by society.
Status and Appearance
In "Desiree's Baby," the wealthy plantation owners are portrayed as largely caring about status and appearance. Armand shows his love for Desiree with flashy, expensive gifts, and they live a privileged lifestyle with numerous slaves working and waiting on them. Their son lies in Desiree's extravagant mahogany bed, being fanned by a young mixed-race boy.
For Armand, appearance and status are the most important things. For this reason he is angered and threatened by the fact that his son is not entirely white. He feels that his status and high standing position in society are being unjustly ruined and blames Desiree, though she has no control or awareness in the matter. Ultimately Armand's pridefulness and superficiality lead him to shun and abandon his own family.
In contrast, Madame Valmonde, who is also a high society lady who is conscious of status and appearance, is able to see past these things for the sake of love. She desires to welcome Desiree and her child back despite the rumors surrounding them. When Desiree walks into the bayou at the end of the story, allowing her gown and slippers to be stained and torn, it symbolizes her freedom and lack of care for appearances and the propriety of society. Ultimately, she desires her husband's love, not material things or beauty.
Marriage, Motherhood, and Female Identity
In the time period of "Desiree's Baby," marriage and motherhood were seen as the essential components of female identity and happiness. Kate Chopin explores how marriage and motherhood can both live up to their ideal, but also fall short of it. While Desiree is initially in a state of bliss with her baby and her husband's love and approval, she turns to distress and despair when Armand decides he no longer wants anything to do with her or their child.
Desiree is portrayed as the perfect or ideal traditional woman who lives to serve her husband, but ultimately, this disposition leaves her in a state of abandonment and despair. Kate Chopin emphasizes and challenges traditional gender role stereotypes. Desiree derives her worth and identity from approval in the domestic sphere, and when that is taken away, she feels life is no longer worth living.
The passionate love that she and Armand shared disappears as quickly as it was initiated. In contrast, the marriages between the Valmondes and the Aubingys represent older, more stable relationships that are accepting and endure.
God and Blessings
The French Creole community depicted in "Desiree's Baby" was influenced by the Roman Catholic religion. Numerous times throughout the story, Chopin writes that the characters are grateful to God for the blessings in their lives. On the other hand, Armand is spiteful towards God for allowing him to have a wife and child who would bring shame upon him. He takes out his frustrations on his helpless wife.
Kate Chopin suggests that in addition to recognizing and thanking God for the blessings in life, people must turn to God amidst their sufferings. Desiree turns to thank God for her husband's love during good times, but in the end, she does not turn to God nor accept even her mother's love when she is distraught and troubled. Rather than having hope and faith, she turns to darkness and despair and takes matters into her own hands.
Desiree's Baby - Key Takeaways
- "Desiree's Baby" is a short story written by Kate Chopin, an author famous for the early feminist novel, The Awakening.
- The story "Desiree's Baby" is set on plantations in the rural American South before the Civil War.
- The main characters in "Desiree's Baby" are part of the French Creole community, and Kate Chopin incorporates French dialect and culture into the story.
- In her short story, "Desiree's Baby," Kate Chopin depicts the downfall of the seemingly perfect lives of wealthy, French Creole plantation owners due to the mystery of a mixed-race baby.
- "Desiree's Baby" explores themes of love, racism, slavery, status, appearance, marriage, motherhood, female identity, God, and blessings.
1 Kate Chopin, "Desiree's Baby," Vogue, 1893.