"Desiree's Baby," a short story by Kate Chopin, takes places in Creole Louisiana, during the period of time between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Historically, this location was known as the Antebellum South. Wealthy white plantation owners at this time were known for their possession of African slaves, and many for their cruelty to them. Racism, at this time in America's history, was a given, and it was neither unusual nor socially unacceptable to treat slaves like they were animals.
Desiree's husband in this story is such a character. He is described as having an "imperious and exacting nature." He is known for severe and strict ruling of the slaves he owns and quickness to punish them physically. Because of this, there is a tone of fear and foreboding over the short story. The slaves themselves must be fearful of their owner, but even Desiree seems cautious around her husband. She notes, whispering, after the birth of their baby that "he hasn't punished one of them--not one of them--since baby is born." Add to this tone the mystery that is established from the beginning of Desiree's ancestry, and later the mystery of her child's skin color. Both the fear and the mystery combine to create a very dark mood in this short story.
The setting of "Désirée's Baby," one of the few stories that Kate Chopin set before the Civil War, is in the Bayou country of Louisiana. The Antebellum South enjoyed a luxurious and indulgent period for those plantation owners who were the aristocracy. On the other hand, for the slaves on the plantations, it was often an anxious time since there were those who suffered deprivations.
In the story, years ago when the childless Madame Valmondé found a baby sleeping in the shadow of a great pillar, she did not worry about the beautiful child's background, for she felt that the child was a gift from God.
It was no wonder, when [Désirée] stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. . . . The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche. . . or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.
Despite his father's desire to investigate Désirée's background, Armand insists upon marrying her. After Désirée has her baby, she is very content and Armand has softened, now treating the slaves with some kindness. The mood is one of contentment.
However, after three months, Désirée senses a change. She knows that there is something menacing that threatens her family's happiness. After Madame Valmondé visits and looks at the baby in the daylight that streams though the window of the boudoir, she then glances at the "yellow" servant, and she realizes that the infant is not white. But she says nothing.
Désirée's mood of contentment changes. It becomes one of dark and frightening anxiety. When Désirée asks her husband about their baby, saying "What does it mean?" he replies that it means that Désirée is not white. Even though Désirée insists that she is by pointing to her hair and by showing him her arm and hand that are lighter than his, Armand refuses to believe her. So, Désirée anxiously writes to her mother, who in turn, responds by instructing her to return to her, accompanied by the baby. After Désirée shows her mother's letter to Armaud and asks what she should do, he tells her to go ahead and leave, repelling her for what he perceives as the cruelty and injustice dealt to him by fate. In complete despair, Désirée departs abstractedly with the baby in her arms. With no traveling clothes on, Désirée does not take the worn road; instead, she walks across an empty field and into the bayou area.
She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.
The conclusion of this story has a dark and despairing mood. Désirée seems to be lost, and Armaud burns everything connected to her, including her letters to him. But, in pulling out these letters to burn, Armaud comes across a letter written by his mother. She writes to his father about how glad she is that Armaud will never know his mother, a woman that is "cursed with the brand of slavery."