Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532
Kate Chopin clearly sympathizes with the plight of people of mixed blood and points out the evils of a slave system that at once creates and condemns miscegenation. Her chief concern, however, is not with the South’s “peculiar institution,” a topic she rarely treated in her fiction. Rather, she concerns herself with her characters’ inner lives.
Certainly these lives confront external constraints. Désirée and Armand live in a world that values racial purity. To be Black is to be condemned to a life of subservience; to be white is to inherit mastery. No matter how beautiful or how fair one may be, blood rules. Armand spends much time in the cottage of a slave named La Blanche, whose name suggests her skin color. Still, she is of mixed race, so she is a slave, and the quadroon boy who fans Désirée’s baby is probably the son of Armand and La Blanche. The most such a woman can hope for is to be treated well by her master and to be his concubine because she will never be his wife. Among Creoles, who pride themselves not only on their racial purity but also on their French heritage, the proper pedigree is especially important.
The characters’ world is also one in which women, like Blacks, are second-class citizens. Women have certain fixed roles—daughter, wife, mother. Désirée’s world is small, moving between the neighboring plantations of her foster parents and her husband. She passes her days inside, and Armand is free to come and go as he pleases. Once her husband rejects her, Désirée must choose between disgrace and death; despite Madame Valmonde’s offer of sanctuary, Désirée would remain an outcast.
Still, “Désirée’s Baby” might have ended differently. The code of the outside world impinges on Armand but does not force him to act as he does. When he married Désirée he claimed indifference to her status as a foundling, but he is not, in fact, strong enough to reject the prejudices of the world. Indeed, he stands for those very attitudes that he seems to ignore: He defines himself by his pedigree and by his role as master of his slaves and his wife. Désirée is desirable only so long as she appears to be a valuable possession. Once he believes that she is not “authentic,” he loses interest, for he never regards her as a fellow human being with needs of her own. She is there, he believes, to satisfy him; when she no longer does so, he discards her.
In her poem “Because,” Chopin writes, “Tis only man/ That does because he can/ And knowing good from ill,/ Chooses because he will.” Armand has a choice: He can love Désirée for what she is (or thinks she is) as his father loved his Black mother, or he can let his pride overrule that love. Chopin admires the character who defies convention, who is sufficiently strong to reject the false standards of his time and place. Armand’s inability to surmount prejudice leads to the tragedy of the story.
Last Updated on July 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690
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.
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 fans the baby is a quadroon (a person of one-quarter African ancestry). In fact, it is the appearance of the quadroon boy who sparks Désirée's comprehension of the racial ancestry of her own child.
The violence and destruction inherent in Armand's desire for Désirée is also foreshadowed in the story through a series of similes. Upon seeing Désirée at the gate of her home, Armand fell in love with Désirée instantly, ‘‘as if struck by a pistol shot.’’ The passion awakened that day ‘‘swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.’’ Indeed, even the description of Armand's house, with a roof ‘‘black like a cowl’’ surrounded by ‘‘[B]ig, solemn oaks ... [which] shadowed it like a pall'' evoke funereal connotations, ones that will be realized in the deaths of Désirée and her baby.