woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Symbols and Themes in "Désirée's Baby"


In "Désirée's Baby," key symbols include the stone pillar at the Valmondé estate, representing Desiree's mysterious origins, and the bonfire, symbolizing Armand's attempt to erase his past. Major themes are racism, identity, and the destructive power of secrets, as Desiree's and Armand's lives unravel due to the revelation of their true heritages.

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What does the fire symbolize in "Désirée's Baby"?

The bonfire at the end of this story can be seen as a symbol of Armand's rage and destructiveness. An interesting parallel can be drawn between this bonfire, however, which is contained, and the description at the beginning of the story of his passion for his wife, which was like a "prairie fire." Fire, then, is a symbol of Armand's passion in the story, but his uncontained and feverish passion in his initial love for Désirée has been replaced now by something more directed. It is also notable, given the origin and causes of Armand's rage, that he makes use of the "negroes" to keep the fire going. It is as if he is taking out his racism on them in an additional way by having them tend the fire that symbolizes Armand's hatred for everything that is Black.

What is Armand's rage directed against? There could be several answers to this. He is burning his wife's things; the bonfire marks an end to their marriage and a means of destroying the evidence of their Black child. However, he is also burning the letter in which his mother confesses that the Black heritage is actually in Armand, not in his wife. Therefore, by trying to erase this truth with fire, Armand is perhaps raging against his mother, for having lied, and against himself, for being tainted in this way. It is as if, by burning all this evidence, Armand hopes to be able to burn the Blackness out of his own history.

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What does the baby symbolize in "Désirée's Baby"?

I would have to take issue with this question and argue that there is nothing in this text to suggest that the baby is being used to symbolise warmth. If we look at the story carefully, we can see that the baby is actually given very little description. She is only described in terms of her relationship with her mother and her father, and the only description we are given of where she is rather than any physical description. The only way that I can see the baby can be used as a symbol of warmth is the impact that its birth has had on its father:

Marriage, and later the birth of his son, had softened Armand Aubigny's imperious and exacting nature greatly. This was what made the gentle Desiree so happy, for she loved him desperately.

The baby then can be used to symbolise warmth in the way in which the story narrates the changed character of Armand, but apart from this I find no evidence from the text to suggest that the baby symbolises any other aspect. The baby in reality is a very minor character who lacks any serious description.

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What is the message of the story "Désirée's Baby"?

What might be confusing to you about the story "Desiree's Baby" is that author Kate Chopin deliberately created many ambiguities within the story. That is, she raises possibilities without answering them for reader. 

In general, here is what happens in the story: Desiree's mother comes to visit Desiree when her baby is about a month old. The mother is surprised at the appearance of the baby, but Desiree is so in love with the child that she does not pick up on her mother's concerns. Desiree says that Armand is very pleased and happy and that he has even stopped beating the slaves since the child was born.

When the baby is about three months old, however, things change radically. Armand stays away from Desiree and the baby without telling her why. Neighbors from far away come to visit, and Desiree is not told why. Finally as Desiree is observing the child of one of the slaves, she begins to look from the little boy to her baby and something dawns on her. She goes to Armand and asks him what it means. He tells her, "It means that the child is not white. It means that you are not white." Evidently the child has facial characteristics that are typical of blacks.

Desiree objects, saying her skin is whiter than Armand's. Desiree's mother writes to her and tells her she is welcome to bring the baby and come back to live with her. Desiree asks Armand if he wants her to go, and he says he does. Without taking anything with her, Desiree takes the baby and walks not toward her mother's house, but into the bayou, where she presumably would have died with her child. Weeks later Armand has a bonfire to burn all the clothing and accessories of Desiree and the baby. He burns letters he received from Desiree during their courtship. Among those letters he finds a note from his own mother to his father revealing the fact that she is of mixed blood, and some of her ancestors were black. 

The story implies without directly stating it that Armand is extremely racist. In the South if a person had even 1/8 black heritage, he or she was considered black, not white. That meant that laws that discriminated against blacks would apply to that person, even if he or she did not look black at all. As a plantation owner, Armand was obviously heavily invested in the social structure of the South and believed that blacks were an inferior race. Desiree was adopted by her family, and when Armand married her, he was wildly in love with her and never considered the possibility she was not completely white, especially since she was very light skinned--at least compared to him.

At first when the child was born, his features did not look African. It takes babies a while to develop their own appearance. Still, at the age of one month, Desiree's mother noticed the features and was surprised. This foreshadows Armand's reaction. When the baby was three months old, Armand suspected the baby was part black, and since he supposedly knew his own heritage but Desiree's birth parents were unknown, he believed he was married to a black woman and had a black child. This was mortifying to him because it would harm his status in his community. The far-off neighbors were probably important members of society who Armand consulted with about the problem. They must have advised him to not accept Desiree or the baby and to get rid of them if he could. Armand treats Desiree coldly, forcing her to bring the matter up. He then tells her she is black. She then offers to leave, certainly hoping he will tell her to stay. But he doesn't. She sees no future for herself and her child without the protection of Armand and "knowing" they will be social outcasts now. So she decides to kill herself and the baby.

In a masterful twist ending, Chopin has Armand find out that he is the one who is of mixed racial ancestry. His mother was part black; she had only lived in France and had never subjected herself to the racial prejudice that ruled the Southern U.S. We assume Armand never knew that about his mother. One of the big ambiguities of the story is how Armand feels now that he knows he is part black. Does he still hate blacks, and does he hate himself? Will he regret having sent his innocent wife and child away to their deaths? Or will he simply burn the letter and go on pretending to be 100% white?

At any rate, the irony of the story is that Armand, who despises the black race so much and thinks it is so inferior to the white race, finds out that he himself is part of that "curse." To comprehend the story, you need to understand the social status of blacks and whites in the South when this story takes place. I hope this explanation helps you understand the story better!

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