Désirée's Baby by Kate Chopin

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Désirée's Baby Analysis

  • The surprise ending of "Désirée's Baby" underscores the hypocrisy and injustice of racism. Chopin foreshadows the revelation that Armand is the one with African American 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 words and 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.

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(Short Stories for Students)

Setting and Local Color
At the time of publication of Bayou Folk, which reprinted ‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ Chopin was primarily seen as a local colorist. This designation was partially due to the fact that Chopin wrote about the Cajuns and Creoles of Louisiana. This world, members of which had distinct cultural traits, was relatively unknown to northerners and even other southerners. The Cajuns were descendants of French settlers in Acadia, Canada. They had been driven from Canada in the 1600s, and came to settle in Louisiana, where their name—Acadians—was mangled into the name they are still known by today—Cajuns. Creoles are white people descended from early French and Spanish settlers, or people of mixed French or Spanish and Black descent.

The prevailing French atmosphere is apparent in the story. All of the characters descend from French immigrants, as evidenced by their names, both first and last. Désirée (also a French name) grows up in a household where ‘‘French was the language spoken,’’ and Chopin employs relevant French phrases. Armand's plantation derives its name, L'Abri, from the French word for shelter. Armand even spent the first eight years of his life in Paris. These details help build up the insular world of the Louisiana bayous.

Trick Ending
Several critics of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ have charged that the ending is a trick ending, or an O. Henry ending, so-named after the short story writer famous for the reversals that came at the end of his stories. Undoubtedly, Chopin was familiar with the surprise ending. She was an admirer of the works of Guy de Maupassant, and his story, ‘‘The Necklace,’’ uses a surprise ending for tragic results. Indeed, ''Désirée's Baby'' too results in tragedy for all involved. Désirée and her child end in certain death while Armand discovers that the ‘‘African American blood'' evident in their baby stems from himself. Many critics, however, have disagreed with assessments of the contrived nature of the ending of the story. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes in The Southern Literary Journal, ‘‘it is also the case that a 'trick' or 'surprise' conclusion is almost never a sufficient means by which to evoke a powerful and poignant reaction from the reader.’’ The ending, in fact, demonstrates the irony and the ambiguous nature of racism.

Many critics have pointed out that the ending of ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ would not come as a surprise to perceptive readers, for Chopin uses subtle foreshadowing to prepare the reader for the revelation of Armand's ancestry. Désirée has fair skin and gray eyes. She wears ‘‘soft white muslins and laces.’’ When she stands before her husband with her mother's letter she is described as ‘‘silent, white, motionless.’’ As she walks away from her home for the last time, dressed in a white garment, the sun brings out a ''golden gleam'' from her brown hair. Armand, in contrast, is described as "dark." Armand's racial ancestry is further foreshadowed in Chopin's repetition of the color yellow. His plantation house is yellow, as is the baby's nurse. Indeed, none of Armand's slaves are described as black; one slave is called La Blanche (the white woman), while the young slave who...

(The entire section is 4,952 words.)