woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Discussion Topic

Tensions and conflict in "Désirée's Baby."

Summary:

The primary sources of tension and conflict in "Désirée's Baby" stem from issues of race, identity, and societal expectations. Désirée's husband's reaction to their child's appearance leads to accusations, rejection, and ultimately tragedy. The story explores the destructive power of racial prejudice and the devastating consequences of assumptions based on heritage and appearance.

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What is the conflict in "Désirée's Baby"?

The general frame of a short story is understood to hang around a central conflict or problem that the characters must deal with and react to. In this story, set in the antebellum Southern US, there are various conflicts, both internal and external; but the chief instigating factor is that Désirée gives birth to a child who is evidently "not white."

This, of course, sparks various other points of conflict for the characters. Because of the context in which the story is set, the idea that "slavery" might taint their family history is difficult for either Désirée or Armand to contemplate. Armand insists that it is Désirée's fault that the child is not white; he suggests that she has lied to him. Désirée, meanwhile, is so ashamed of this and so distraught by her husband's rejection that she leaves her husband and walks into the bayou with their child, presumably to kill both herself and the baby.

This is evidence of a strong conflict between both of these people and the society in which they live. The racism of their society means that they find it impossible to love either each other or their baby in the way they had before they believed that there was any likelihood that they had Black heritage.

Of course, at the end of the story, it is revealed that Armand, not Désirée, was the parent with Black heritage. Whether Armand knew this before he rejected Désirée is unknown: if he already knew, he likely felt so ashamed that he blamed Désirée instead, causing her to commit suicide.

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What is the problem in "Désirée's Baby"?

The problem in "Désirée's Baby" is the apparent racial mix of the baby born to Désirée and Armand.

When Madame Valmondé visits her daughter in her new home with Armand Aubigny, who is from a pestigious family, not long after their baby is born, she enters the boudoir and finds Désirée lounging on her chaise with the baby at her breast. Mme.Valmondé turns to the baby after greeting her adopted daughter, then exclaims, "This is not the baby!" Désirée believes that her mother is struck by the size of the baby boy, and mentions how he has grown.

Mme. Valmondé scanned the baby narrowly, then looked as searchingly at Zandrine, whose face was turned to gaze across the fields. “Yes, the child has grown, has changed....”

There is a skepticism in the response of Mme. Valmondé because she worries that her daughter who was a foundling left so many years ago at the big stone pillar of the Valmondé mansion may be bi-racial. Some time later, Armand begins to act differently toward her; he is distant in his manner and avoids her company. After the baby is three months old, Désirée is stricken by the resemblance of the baby to the quadroon [one-fourth black]boy who fans her. Startled by the comparison, she dismisses the boy. When Armand does come into her room, she asks him to look at the baby and tell her what it means. He replies with coldness that it means the baby is not white, nor is she.

“It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,” seizing his wrist. “Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,” she laughed hysterically.

Désirée writes to her mother, who encourages her to come home. However, the despairing young mother takes her baby and walks out in her peignoir through the willows that lie along the shore of the bayou and is seen no more. Her act is one of desperation and despair, a needless act  because it was Armaud's blood that contained Negro. In a letter found in a drawer, among those of Désirée is one from Armand's mother, a nurse, thanking God that Armaud does not know hardship nor that his poor mother has been descended from slaves.

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What is the central problem in "Désirée's Baby"?

First of all, it is important to understand that the story line of a short story typically revolves around the central problem, also called the "conflict." This means that events in the story are building toward a climax and resolution that (hopefully) solve this problem.

"Desiree's Baby," by Kate Chopin, is a short story that takes place in the Antebellum South. This is the time in America's history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  During this time, slavery was both legal, and highly practiced in both the north and the south. Creole Louisiana, the setting of the story, was known for its rich culture of plantation owners, mixture of demographic backgrounds, and high favor of slavery.

The central problem in this story lies in two mysteries that are heightened by the story's historical context. Desiree, the protagonist, is the adopted daughter of wealthy slave owners, and married to a man who has equal social standing.  When she and her husband Armand have their first baby, it is slowly revealed that the baby resembles a slave who is one-quarter African. It is determined, therefore, that the baby is part black.

It means…that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.

Socially speaking, this is unacceptable for a rich white couple in the south. Of course, Armand immediately assumes it is Desiree who must have a black slave in her ancestry, because as an adopted child, her history is unknown. The rest of the story chronicles the unfolding events of Armand's assumption, and of course, a surprise ending.

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Explain the South's tensions revealed in "Désirée's Baby."

In Kate Chopin's story "Désirée's Baby," the tensions and troubles of the South appear in clear relief, especially with regard to the ideas of social status and racial purity.

There are secrets in the lives of both Désirée and her husband, Armand. Désirée was left at her adoptive parents' gate when she was little more than a baby. No one knows her origins. Armand claims that he does not care. He will give her his name, the name of one of the proudest families in the South.

When Désirée has her first child, her mother comes to visit a few weeks later and notices something out of the ordinary. She says nothing specific to Désirée, who is happy with her baby and with the fact that Armand has stopped being so harsh with the slaves on their plantation. However, as the weeks pass, Armand changes again. He becomes cold to Désirée and the child, wanting nothing to do with them. Désirée cannot figure it out, until she notices the similarity between her baby and a little mixed-race slave boy. Désirée's baby is clearly partly white and partly Black.

Armand believes that Désirée must have some Black ancestry. After all, no one knows her origins. She is, therefore, racially impure, and so is their child. Armand's passionate love disappears in the face of this revelation, and he agrees that Désirée and the child should go back to her parents' house, never more to return. Désirée takes the baby and walks off into the bayou, apparently ending both of their lives.

A while later, though, the truth comes to light. The racial "impurity" is not on Désirée's side, but Armand's own. He reads a letter from his mother, who died in France when he was young, to his father in which she expresses her gratitude that their son will never know that she is a descendant of the race "cursed with brand of slavery." Armand is the one of mixed race, not Désirée, but he learns this too late to save his wife and child, whom he has cast away simply because of his ideas about race.

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