woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Désirée's Baby Analysis

  • The ending of "Désirée's Baby" underscores the hypocrisy, arbitrariness, and injustice of racism. Chopin foreshadows the revelation that Armand is the one with Black ancestry through character descriptions: Armand is described as "dark" and violent, whereas Désirée is always shown wearing white lace and soft cloth.
  • The story is interspersed with French phrases, as is common in the Louisiana bayou, where interactions with French traders bolstered the local Cajun and Creole communities. The French linguistic influences help provide a stronger sense of time and place while also characterizing the sense of superiority the White landowners draw from their aristocratic French roots.

Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Kate Chopin’s complex story “Désirée’s Baby” deals with interlocking issues of race, gender, class, and power, especially as they existed in the antebellum American South—but with a relevance to today’s world that is striking and undeniable.

In addition to being a work about racial divisions and conflict, “Désirée’s Baby” is a tale concerning a woman alone, much like the protagonists of Chopin’s The Awakening and “The Story of an Hour.” Désirée’s aloneness is emphasized by the fact of her being an orphan and foundling. The Valmondé family adopted her, but her position is still an anomalous and uncertain one. Monsieur Valmondé, a “practical” man, wants to find out Désirée’s origins before his future son-in-law, Armand, orders the corbeille (the basket of clothing and accessories that serve as a woman’s dowry). Yet the families go ahead with the wedding between Désirée and Armand despite her uncertain background, because Armand is said to be madly in love with Désirée.

Yet once Désirée has married Armand and given birth to their child, she still seems curiously alone on the Aubigny estate. Madame Valmondé comes to visit her and believes that something is “wrong” with the baby, but Désirée has not yet noticed, and she assures her foster mother that the baby is so strong and healthy that Armand can hear his crying “as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.”

At this point, even before the story’s central conflict has occurred, an underlying problem in Southern society is laid bare. What is Armand doing at La Blanche’s cabin? La Blanche, an enslaved woman, appears to be of mixed Black and white descent (as her name, which means “the white woman,” indicates). The open secret of so-called “miscegenation”—or sexual relationships between those of different races, which often occurred within the edifice of slavery—is revealed in that one offhand remark. But in Désirée’s status as a woman, she is powerless to do anything about it. Her whole attitude is one of denial, even as she remarks that Armand’s character has become so softened since their marriage and the birth of their baby that he is no longer inclined to “punish” those he enslaves for their infractions, whatever he may perceive those to be.

Given its content, the atmosphere of the story is ironically placid and pastoral. For English-speaking readers, there is also something slightly exotic about it, given that the characters are of French ancestry and presumably speak French throughout the story. (As the narrator remarks, “French was the language spoken at Valmondé in those days.”) But there is really little difference, materially, between the Louisiana of the story’s setting and other states in the antebellum South, where the slaveholding population was more likely to be Anglo-Saxon.

Désirée herself is presumed to have been brought from Texas to Louisiana, which lends an additional layer of mystery to her background; while she could be the child of English settlers, she could also be of Hispanic descent. She describes her skin as “fair,” but Armand claims it’s no fairer than that of the mixed-race La Blanche. His comparison of Désirée to La Blanche is further evidence of the arbitrary boundaries of race. Enslaving anyone, no matter their ancestry, is reprehensible enough, but the hypocrisy endemic to the ruling class at the time is that they often enslaved people who looked quite as light-skinned as themselves—and, in some cases, were even the slaveholders’ own children.

Armand’s cruelty and the racist nature of a slaveholding society are at the heart of the story, and ambiguity and illusion surround these central concerns. The revelation at the story’s close—that Armand is the...

(This entire section contains 1075 words.)

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one who has African ancestry—is emblematic of the falseness and hypocrisy of the antebellum period and of American society at large. Armand has condemned Désirée and asked her to leave him because of what turns out to be a feature of his own ancestry.

Yet it’s still possible, given that nothing is known about Désirée’s background, that she, too, is of mixed race. Even if she were, however, readers of “Désirée’s Baby” are encouraged to question what difference it could possibly make. Chopin’s underlying message is partly that anyone in the white high society of the story can possibly have nonwhite ancestry, regardless of their skin color. The intersection between society’s arbitrary racial hierarchy and its misogyny becomes clear as the story reaches its climax. Armand—a wealthy, slaveholding man who passes as white—holds the power, and he is therefore able to manipulate and obscure facts about his own ancestry. Though Désirée is the adopted daughter of a wealthy family, the Valmondés, she cannot save herself. She can go back to her foster parents, as Madame Valmondé suggests, but she chooses not to, potentially because her position there, as a woman of presumably mixed race with a mixed-race child, would be untenable. On several planes (as an abandoned woman, as a person of potential mixed-race descent, and as a foundling), Désirée is shown to belong nowhere, and so she chooses to disappear with her child into the bayou.

The story’s themes of gender and race are intimately connected to class oppression. It is clear that society in the New World largely replicated the ancien régime that was, at the time, coming apart in Europe. Even—or especially—those who had no claim to an aristocratic background in the Old World could set themselves up as quasi-nobility in the United States, despite its supposed founding upon egalitarian ideals. The society of the antebellum South served to recreate and uphold the hierarchies of the past, to perpetuate the harmful fiction that some people have the right to rule others, and to “wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” as Abraham Lincoln described the essence of slavery. Chopin’s story is a visceral depiction of the harshness and even sadism that stood at the root of this society’s values. Its strict divisions and condemnations by race, gender, and class were arbitrary, and yet they had—and continue to have—immense power to determine the course of people’s lives.

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