woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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Discussion Topic

The development of central themes in "Désirée's Baby" and the impact of the ending

Summary:

In "Désirée's Baby," central themes include race, identity, and societal norms. The story explores the destructive nature of racism and the complexities of identity in the antebellum South. The ending, revealing that Armand is of mixed ancestry, underscores the irony and tragedy of his prejudice, dramatically impacting the reader's understanding of the characters and themes.

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How does the revelation at the end of "Désirée's Baby" contribute to the theme?

The last line reflects not only the short story's racial themes but also the theme of a mother's love and how that love can instinctively affect the decisions you make later on in life.

The racial themes are apparent first in the characters need to hide any kind of evidence that they have black blood. Even if people in the South knew you had a distant relative who was black, they would still view you as inferior to the white race.

This is the reason the author suggests people didn't take to the beautiful Désirée. People didn't know her origins. The Valmondes found her as a baby, and although they did their best to quash the rumors, people didn't trust that she was purely white.

It is therefore interesting that Armand is not only bowled over by her but doesn't care about her origins. As the author states, “he was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” Rather than go by his thoughts, he does what the author says all his family did and goes by his instincts.

The origins of his own instincts come clear at the end when the author tells the reader that his mother had Negro blood. In that regard, he is attracted to Désirée because, like him, she has a past that may or may not be acceptable to their people. Like his mother, he feels that she would love him no matter what.

Unfortunately for Armand, he is the one who can't accept that he has Negro blood. Whether he means to or not, he uses Désirée and her unknown past as a way to keep his standing in society. It seems that the fear of being found that you have black blood is greater than the fear of spending the rest of your life alone.

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What is the significance of the revelation in "Désirée's Baby"?

The revelation at the end of "Désirée's Baby" casts a new level of irony over Armand's attitude and actions. He assumed Désirée must be the one with black ancestry, since he is so assured of his own racial "purity," and no one knows who Désirée's biological parents were, since she was a foundling. However, it turns out that his mother was black—and that she wished this to be kept from him for his own social advantage.

The revelation also contributes to the feminist side of the story. Désirée is disadvantaged as a woman in a world where white men hold all the power. Armand has more power as a man and is allowed to just cast her and her baby aside with little consequence to himself. Her disappearing and never returning shows just how insignificant a woman could become in society when she was considered undesirable in terms of race.

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How do the central ideas in "Désirée's Baby" develop throughout the story, and how does the ending contribute to these themes?

It would make sense to develop one paragraph for each theme, explaining how each is supported with reference to the end. Alternately, you could write one paragraph to analyze each of two themes and then write a third paragraph to address how the final revelation impacts them. One theme of this story is that true love is not impacted by race or color. When Desiree's adoptive parents, Monsieur and Madame Valmonde, find her, they do not care where she came from or who she might be. They accept her and love her as their own. Importantly, when Madame Valmonde realizes that Desiree's baby must have some black ancestry, she still wants Desiree and the baby to come home to her. She does not care what color they are, though Desiree's husband, Armand Aubigny, feels quite differently. His love for her is not real love.

Another theme of the story is that a person's worth or value is not connected to their race or their racial purity. Armand is of mixed race. And, who knows? Desiree may be as well. There was so much concern in this era and location about how much of what someone was: a person with one black parent was called a "mulatto"; a person with one black grandparent was called a "quadroon," and a person with one black great-grandparent was called an "octoroon." These kinds of categories show how concerned people were about "black blood." Clearly, Armand believes that Desiree is unworthy of his love when he believes that she is of mixed race. He does not try to stop her from killing herself and their child. When he learns that it is actually he who is of mixed race, he destroys the evidence; he knows that people will judge him for it as he judged Desiree.

A final theme is that any perceived difference in race is actually arbitrary and not absolute. Armand looks down on Desiree to the point of wanting to leave her when he believes that she has partial African heritage, but he found her beautiful and perfect before then. Everyone thinks of Armand as white and considers him to be a good and passionate person, though we learn that he is partially of African decent. Thus, there is no moral, spiritual, intellectual, or emotional difference between black and white; there is only one difference, and that is physical color. Even this is inconsistent.

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