woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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What is the significance of the quadroon boy fanning Désirée's baby with peacock feathers in "Désirée's Baby"?

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In Kate Chopin's short story "'Désirée's Baby," the little quadroon boy who fans the baby is significant because he is the key to the mystery of the altered appearance of Désirée's baby.

Because Désirée is married to Armand Aubigny, a handsome young man who possesses a venerable and prestigious name, Désirée is delighted with her new life. Before their marriage, however, Armand's father, Monsieur Aubigny, wished to know the heritage of the orphaned girl found on Madame Valmonde's property who had grown into such a beautiful woman. Unlike his father, Armand felt that her past was unimportant; it was enough that Désirée would bear his name.

Now that her baby is growing, Désirée notices that Armand has grown distant, and he has again become crueler to the slaves. Also,

When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed to have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse.

One hot afternoon, Désirée languishes upon her couch and watches the quadroon boy (He is one-quarter African and three quarters European ancestry) as he fans her baby. She looks from one to the other and, suddenly, she utters a cry because she notices the similarities between the slave boy and her son. Later, when her husband enters, she asks him about their son. He replies, "It means," he answered lightly, "that the child is not white; it means that you are not white." Because Armand believes that his son is like the slave boy, he rejects him and his mother, who he thinks must have African blood in her. Of course, the ironic reversal of the story explains how tragic it is that Désirée is so unjustly shamed and rejected. Armand is in fact the one with African blood.

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Kate Chopin's story "Desiree's Baby" is full of ambiguities. Many details of the story are purposefully left vague, and many can be interpreted in at least two different ways. The little quadroon boy, the slave La Blanche's son, is significant because he causes Desiree to have a revelation. However, the nature of the revelation is ambiguous.

By the time Desiree's baby is three months old, nearly everyone has realized that he has African facial features. Desiree is the only one who simply admires him for who he is without noticing anything unusual about him. Armand has already stopped talking to Desiree and avoids the child. Faraway neighbors have come to the plantation for mysterious reasons, presumably to consult with Armand about the matter of his mixed race child. One day Desiree is in her room with the baby lying on her bed and the quadroon (mixed-race) boy is fanning him with peacock feathers. She looks back and forth several times between the two boys, and then says, "Ah!" She breaks into a sweat and her blood runs cold. When she asks Armand to look at their child and tell her what it means, he says, "It means ... that the child is not white; it means that you are not white."

One obvious conclusion about what Desiree noticed and what made her exclaim "Ah!" is that she compared the facial features of the quadroon child and her own son's facial features and saw a resemblance between them that suggested her child was partially black.

Another interpretation is that she saw a resemblance between the two and noticed Armand's features in both of them. In this case, the meaning of her question to Armand would be, "Look at our child. He looks like he could be La Blanche's boy's brother. What does this mean?" The voice she said it in "must have stabbed him, if he was human." (It might be noted here that in Armand's case, this is a big "if.") Her tone seems accusatory. There are hints that Armand may have fathered the quadroon boy and that he may have a habit of taking advantage of his female slaves. During the days after the baby's birth, Armand is able to hear the baby's cry "as far away as La Blanche's cabin." One might wonder what need the plantation owner would have to be at a female slave's cabin. In addition, the brutality with which he treats his slaves suggests that he would not hesitate to use his female slaves as concubines.

The quadroon boy is significant in the story because he is the cause of Desiree's revelation. What that revelation was, like so many other details in this story, remains ambiguous. 

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