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Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin
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In "Désirée's Baby," what does, "He was reminded that she was nameless," mean?

Armand Aubigny marries Desiree, a white woman who is beautiful and cultured but whose name is unknown. Aubigny falls in love with her instantly, but when their child is born with slightly dark skin, he judges her because of his cultural prejudices and fear for his family name. He disowns Desiree and the baby, telling her “it means that you are not white.” The final ironic twist in the end is the letter Armand finds in which his mother reveals that she “‘belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.’” The story gives clues enough to this truth, again involving skin color.

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The story of “Desiree’s Baby” takes place in the southern United States during the early 1800’s, in a time and setting in which one's family name was everything for the Southern aristocracy.  The patriarch of the family had dominance not only over slaves, but over the women and children, as...

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The story of “Desiree’s Baby” takes place in the southern United States during the early 1800’s, in a time and setting in which one's family name was everything for the Southern aristocracy.  The patriarch of the family had dominance not only over slaves, but over the women and children, as well.  It was his role to control them in order to maintain his family honor, and to maintain the prestige of his name at all costs.

Therefore, Armand Aubigny’s decision to marry Desiree, a white woman who is beautiful and cultured but whose name is unknown, is out of the cultural norm.  Having been abandoned as an infant, she was raised by Madame and Monsieur Valmonde.  In spite of having been raised a lady, Desiree's doubtful origins would be considered a blight on her worthiness in the eyes of the Southern aristocracy.  We are told that when Armand falls instantly in love and determines to marry Desiree, “he was reminded that she was nameless.” The fact that Chopin doesn’t tell us who reminds him gives us the sense that it is likely more than one person, representing the societal norm that Southern aristocracy must marry into an honorable family name.

Yet Armand, it appears, is somewhat impulsive and overly confident that his own impeccable family name will be enough to cover for her.  It is ironic that he judges her acceptable based on the color of her skin.  Likewise, when their child is born slightly dark-skinned, he again judges her. He completely disowns Desiree and her baby, telling her, “it means that you are not white.” Based on his cultural prejudices and fear for his family name, he falls out of love with her as instantly as he fell in love.  

The final, ironic twist in the end is the letter Armand finds in which his mother reveals that she “‘belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.’” He might not be “nameless” as Desiree is, but his contemporaries would deem him lower than she if they knew his true heritage.

The story gives clues enough to this truth, again involving skin color.  Chopin tells us that Desiree sometimes fears but always loves “Armand's dark, handsome face,” and at his accusation that she is not white, she cries, “Look at my hand; whiter than yours.” Yet because he is the son of a wealthy aristocrat, it seems that no one has ever questioned his ethnicity. Chopin leaves the reader to wonder at Armand's reaction to the news of his heritage. Based on the knowledge that Desiree and the baby never return to L'Abri, coupled with Armand´s prejudiced cultural mindset and the fact that he has been obliterating all the artifacts of his marriage in a fire, we can assume that he will burn the evidence which would taint his name, yet live in self-hatred for the rest of his days.

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This phrase comes at the beginning of the story when we are told of how Armand fell in love with Desiree "like a pistol shot." Although Valmonde, Desiree's guardian, does his best to remind Armand of Desiree's "obscure origin" (which refers to her probable illegitimate state), and the way that she does not have a "name" (referring to her uncertain parentage and lack of connections), Armand insists that he must marry her with no delay. Note his reasoning:

What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?

Of course, there is intense irony in the phrase you have mentioned. Although he is cautioned by Valmonde as much as possible and her uncertain extraction, he still insists on marrying Desiree, only to find that the child they have together is obviously mixed race. Armand leaps to the conclusion that because of Desiree's background, she must be responsible for this, whilst all along it is actually his own hidden past that is responsible.

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The story begins with a flashback description of how Desiree was found as a toddler at the side of the road, right at the gate to the Valmonde's property. Madame Valmonde, who was childless, adopted Desiree and considered her a gift from Providence. When Desiree grew to womanhood, she attracted the attention and head-over-heels love of Armand Aubigny. Desiree's father became practical when Aubigny proposed. Monsieur Valmonde reminded Armand that Desiree "was nameless." That is, he clarified for Armand that Desiree's birth family and genetic heritage were unknown. For someone like Armand, who it becomes clear later, has definite opinions about race, this should have served as a warning that he should take care about marrying Desiree. But Armand was so infatuated that he disregarded that warning and married her anyway. He thought at the time, the story implies, that his name—one respected for generations—would be sufficient for both of them.

However, when Desiree's baby is born and has physical characteristics suggesting he has black heritage, Armand is able to "blame" the child's mixed race on Desiree. Although Chopin doesn't say so, she leaves enough ambiguity in the story to suggest that Armand could have known that he himself had black ancestry. After all, he was eight years old when his mother died—old enough to remember her looks and to wonder why she had never been brought to their plantation. Armand's mother's hope was that Armand would never know she was black, but when he reads her letter at the end of the story, we are not told if that was the first time he had seen it. 

One way to read the story, although perhaps not the most common way, is that Armand chose a wife who "was nameless" so that, if his offspring showed black characteristics, he could attribute that to the mother rather than reveal his own heritage. The most common reading is that Armand truly does believe Desiree is the "carrier" of the black heritage until he finds the letter from his mother at the end of the story. Either way, the fact that Desiree's heritage is unknown allows the story to unfold as it does.

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As "Desire's Baby" begins, the reader is introduced to Desire.  As a baby, she is found on the side of the road by the Valmounde family.  A wealthy family with no children of their own they take her in and adopt her.  Years later when she has grown into a beauty, she catches the eye of a neighboring plantation owner, Armand Aubigny. As a part of a wealthy family, Armand has a wealthy name- one that has been passed down from generation to generation.  When they first get married, Armand's father warns him that Desire has no such name.  Since she was adopted, no one knows who her family is, or where they come from.  At the time he is in love and doesn't worry about it.  He dismisses his father's warning saying that he will give Desire his name.

A sweet thought that comes back to haunt him once their baby is born.  When they realize that the baby has color to him they realize there must be some Black ancestry in their family.  Since she doesn't "have a name" Armand believes it must be her fought and her family.  The true irony exists when we realize that it is actually Black ancestry.

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