Désirée's Baby Summary
Kate Chopin's short story "Désirée's Baby" examines the arbitrary hierarchies of race, gender, and class in the antebellum South.
- Désirée, an abandoned orphan who was adopted by wealthy plantation owners, has married Armand Aubigny, who owns a neighboring plantation.
- Armand and Désirée's marriage, once passionate and loving, turns bitter and resentful when they have a baby who appears to be of mixed race.
- Armand accuses Désirée of having Black ancestry. Distraught, she takes the baby and walks off into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
- Afterwards, Armand finds a scrap of one of his mother's letters in which she reveals that she is Black.
Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132
“Désirée’s Baby” takes place in antebellum Louisiana. Madame Valmondé has gone to L’Abri to visit Désirée, her foster daughter, who is married to the estate’s young owner, Armand Aubigny. Désirée has just had a baby and appears to be overjoyed with motherhood and the mutual happiness she and her husband are experiencing.
Désirée’s own origin is mysterious. Eighteen years before, as an infant of “toddling age,” she was found sleeping against a stone pillar on the Valmondé estate. Some people believed she must have wandered there on her own, but most assumed that she had been brought to Louisiana “by a party of Texans” in a canvas-covered wagon that had crossed the ferry nearby. The Valmondé family adopted her, and Madame Valmondé, who has no biological children of her own, loves Désirée very much.
The Valmondé and Aubigny families live on neighboring plantations, and Désirée and Armand have known each other for most of their lives. Armand lived in Paris with his parents until the age of eight and was brought to Louisiana when his mother died. Rather suddenly, Armand fell in love with Désirée when he saw her standing one day “against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before.” All of the Aubignys are said to fall in love quickly, “as if struck by a pistol shot,” and Armand was no exception.
Armand intended to marry Désirée, but before the wedding, Monsieur Valmondé “grew practical” and wished to find out more about Désirée’s “obscure” origin. But Armand did not care about Désirée’s namelessness, saying that he intended to give her his own—“one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana.” He quickly ordered the corbeille (the clothing and accessories that form a dowry) for her. The two were then married, and soon after, they had a child.
When Madame Valmondé visits L’Abri, she is disconcerted, as always, by how unkempt and “sad” the place appears. When Monsieur Aubigny, Armand’s father, came to Louisiana after the death of his wife, he took little care about the appearance of the plantation. But the most striking impression Madame Aubigny has during her visit is that of the baby’s appearance. Something has changed about him in the four weeks since she has seen him, though the nature of this change is kept from the reader. Madame Aubigny even declares, “This is not the baby!”
Désirée believes that Madame Aubigny is simply surprised at how much the baby has grown. She describes him as a little “cochon de lait”—a suckling pig—and for the moment, Désirée’s happiness with the infant and her marriage to Armand overrides the older woman’s concern. Still, Madame Valmondé looks carefully at the baby and glances back and forth between him and the nurse, a “yellow” woman named Zandrine, who wears a turban. Désirée tells her foster mother that Armand is proud of the baby. In fact, Armand is so happy—especially because the baby is a boy—that his usually severe (that is, cruel) behavior toward the enslaved people on his plantation has softened. It appears a great achievement to Désirée that Armand hasn’t punished any of the enslaved people there since the baby was born. This is completely unlike him and more similar to the easygoing ways of his father.
It’s evident that some of the slaves are mixed-race or “quadroons” (an outdated term for a person of one-quarter Black ancestry). An apparently mixed-race enslaved woman named La Blanche (French for “the white woman”) is referred to several times, and Désirée tells her foster mother that the baby is so healthy that his cries are audible to Armand “as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.”
When Désirée and Armand’s baby is about three months old, it becomes apparent that something troubling is taking place. At first, Désirée does not know or is in denial about the nature of the problem. She receives “unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming,” and Armand’s loving attitude has completely changed; he avoids Désirée, and when he does speak to her, he averts his eyes. He is frequently absent and resumes his cruel treatment of the enslaved people at L’Abri.
Soon, Désirée realizes the problem. One hot day, she is sitting in her room when she fixates upon the appearance of one of La Blanche’s sons, described as a “quadroon,” who is fanning her baby to keep him cool. She looks back and forth between her baby and the boy, and suddenly exclaims, “Ah!” Désirée has realized that her baby looks quite similar to the boy, who is of mixed Black and white descent. She silently and abruptly orders the boy to leave the room.
Armand enters soon after, and Désirée confronts him to ask what the appearance of their child can mean. “It means,” Armand coldly and “lightly” answers, “that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.” When Désirée counters that her own skin is fair—lighter than Armand’s own—and her eyes are gray, Armand “cruelly” replies that her skin is no lighter than La Blanche’s, then leaves the room. He clearly wants nothing more to do with her or the child. Désirée writes to her foster mother, who replies lovingly and invites Désirée to return with her baby to the Valmondé estate.
When Désirée shows Madame Valmondé’s letter to Armand and asks if he wants her to go, he tells her she should do as the woman suggests: go away with the child and not come back to him. He doesn’t even say good-bye to her. In her nightclothes and slippers, Désirée takes the baby and disappears into the bayou. It is unclear what is to become of her, but it’s obvious she will never see Armand or her own family again.
Several weeks later, Armand has his enslaved people build a large bonfire, into which he systematically throws the baby’s cradle and layette and Désirée’s clothes, dowry, and other belongings. A “tiny bundle of letters” is the last thing to burn; most are from Désirée, but one is from his mother to his father, years before. In the letter, Armand’s mother thanks God that Armand “will never know” that she is herself descended from the race “cursed with the brand of slavery.”