woman holding a baby walking out into the bayou

Désirée's Baby

by Kate Chopin

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The impact of setting and atmosphere on the mood and characters in "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin

Summary:

The setting and atmosphere in "Désirée's Baby" significantly impact the mood and characters. The plantation's oppressive environment mirrors the racial prejudices of the time, influencing characters' actions and decisions. The idyllic yet isolating surroundings initially create a sense of tranquility, which later contrasts with the dark revelation of Désirée's baby's heritage, amplifying the story's tension and emotional intensity.

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How does the setting impact the story in "Désirée's Baby"?

The short story "Desiree's Baby" by Kate Chopin takes place in Louisiana, in the Deep South. It is placed inin the antebellum era, or the era before the American Civil War. Mr. and Mrs. Valdemonte adopt a young child, a toddler, who they find abandoned at the base of a stone pillar at the edge of their plantation and name Desiree. When Desiree is 18, a young man named Armand Aubigny rides by and falls in love with her.

Desiree and Armand marry, and he takes her to live at the plantation he inherited from his parents. They have a baby, and at first the couple seems happy together. However, as their baby grows, his skin darkens. Armand accuses Desiree of being part black and asks her to leave. However, instead of going home to her mother, heartbroken Desiree takes the baby and walks off into the wilderness of the bayou country and is never seen again. In the last paragraph, Chopin makes it clear to readers that the baby is dark because Armand, not Desiree, is part black.

The historical setting is crucial to this story. Louisiana before the American Civil War was a slave state. Its economy depended upon oppressed African American labor. Most whites looked down upon blacks and people who were part black. Chopin draws on this structure of racism to create the conflict in the story. As long as Armand thinks that Desiree is white, he loves her and is proud of her and the baby. He even treats his black slaves better. However, as soon as he discovers that Desiree and the child might be part black, his attitude changes and he despises them. Although this is not brought out, he must have despised himself even more when he discovers that he is part black.

The smaller setting of the plantation where most of the story takes place is just as important to the theme as the broader setting of the Deep South. Its descriptions add to the tone of the story. It has an atmosphere of gloom and foreboding, which foreshadows the tragedy to come. Chopin describes it as a "sad looking place." The roof comes down "steep and black like a cowl." It is surrounded by "solemn oaks" with long branches shadowing it "like a pall." All of these details of setting provide a premonition of soon-coming tragedy.

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How does the setting impact the story in "Désirée's Baby"?

The setting of the story helps to illuminate what a terrible hypocrite Armand Aubigny is. Since the story seems to be set in the American south prior to the liberation of slaves, race places a key role in the plot. Most obviously, we know that he casts his wife, the beautiful Desiree, out because it seems she is not "white" (i.e., she doesn't have a completely Caucasian heritage). Their child has a skin color that calls his mother's heritage into question, and it seems that people automatically assume that it is Desiree's parentage that must be responsible for the child's coloring since she was a foundling. Thus, Desiree's husband tells her in no uncertain terms, "'Yes, I want you to go.'" He abandons her either because he is so repulsed by what he believes to be her black heritage or because he knows the baby's coloring is the result of his own parentage and does not want anyone to guess.

However, there are several clues that Armand is having a relationship with another woman who is not white. At one point, Desiree tells her mother that their baby's cry is quite loud, so loud that "Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin." This implies that they were having an affair. Moreover, one day, when "One of La Blanche's little quadroon boys . . . stood fanning the child" that Desiree seems to realize how similar her child and this boy are. A "quadroon" is an archaic word that described a person with one-quarter black heritage. We learn later that Desiree's baby does have one grandparent who is black: Armand's mother; it is possible, then, that their skin colors could be quite similar. Further, "La Blanche" means the white one in French, and so she must have very light skin, perhaps because she has one black parent and one white (it was not uncommon for plantation owners to rape their slaves, producing children of mixed race). This "quadroon" boy's father would have to be white, then, and—of course—Desiree believes that Armand is white. He looks white. It seems possible, then, that this child is actually the offspring of Armand and La Blanche (and would really be light-skinned, like his parents, who are both half white and half black). These are clues that Armand has relations with his slaves—and yet he casts his wife out for allegedly being of mixed race.

If, however, Armand is actually aware of his own mixed racial heritage, then he also seems like a total monster for condemning his wife. Either way, he is revealed to be an absolutely awful character who lacks integrity and compassion for others, and the concerns about race that are a part of this time period play a role in revealing it.

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How does the setting impact the story in "Désirée's Baby"?

Although Kate Chopin does not directly state that the story is set in the pre-Civil War South, several details from the story support this setting, such as the story's theme and the inclusion of plantations, slaves and slave owners, and French vernacular.

The story's themes of the oppression of women, male hypocrisy, and prejudice relate directly to the South before the Civil War.  Desiree fortunately gets to marry for love, but because of the time period, even love is not enough for her husband to overlook his and others' prejudice toward a possibly mulatto wife. Similarly, Desiree has no choice but to leave her husband's home with their baby because men dominated her society, leaving her powerless.  She cannot simply ease into single motherhood; instead, she has to write her mother to see if she can come back home.  As a 19th-century woman, her whole life is dependent upon her husband's decisions.

The story's time setting also plays a huge role in Armand's actions.  Because he is a slaveowner, he must set a precedent with his slaves in order for them to "obey" him, and decides to expel Desiree and the baby from the home so that no one challenges his authority (if he is married to a mixed woman).

Finally, the story's setting in the French part of Louisiana makes Armand's heritage and his lack of knowledge about it believable.  For his mother to have lived in a more forward-thinking France during this time period is not far-fetched, and Armand would have been brought up thinking that his French mother simply preferred Paris to Louisiana.

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How does the setting impact the story in "Désirée's Baby"?

The story is set on a plantation, ironically named l'Abri (which means the shelter) in Louisiana before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. This location and these circumstances help us to see Armand Aubigny's terrible and, ultimately, tragic hypocrisy. He owns slaves, and his "rule was a strict one"—his slaves "had forgotten how to be gay" as they apparently had been when his father was alive and in charge. Furthermore, there are clues that Armand has sex with his slaves (an act which is more accurately called rape, but that is a different discussion): first, Desiree claims that Armand could hear their baby's cries "as far away as La Blanche's cabin." What possible reason would he have to be in a slave woman's cabin? Second, when Desiree tells Armand that her hands are "lighter than [his]," he responds by saying, "As white as La Blanche's." It sounds as though La Blanche is a particularly fair-skinned slave with whom Armand spends a great deal of time, and her skin is something with which he seems to have intimate familiarity.

Armand has no qualms about having sex with his slaves, individuals who he so clearly feels to be beneath him, and yet he is willing to outcast his wife for supposedly being partly black. He feels she has done "unconscious injury" to "his home and his name." Armand's treatment of his wife is appalling and would be regardless of when and where the story takes place; however, his racial hypocrisy, including his final act of destroying the evidence of his own mixed racial heritage, makes his actions even worse. In providing a way for us to observe his racial hypocrisy, the setting influences both the action and our interpretation of it.

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How does the setting impact the story in "Désirée's Baby"?

The setting of "Desiree's Baby" contributes to the action of the story by showing the home of Armand and Desiree as falling into despair.

Madame Valmonde had not seen Desiree and the baby for four weeks. When she reached L'Abri she shuddered at the first sight of it, as she always did. It was a sad looking place, which for many years had not known the gentle presence of a mistress, old Monsieur Aubigny having married and buried his wife in France, and she having loved her own land too well ever to leave it. The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny's rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going and indulgent lifetime.

This allows an active reader to pick up on the foreshadowing of what is to come.  The home, "was a sad looking place" with "big solemn oaks".  One could come to understand that the setting echos the action of the story by enhancing the themes of sadness and solitude.

Therefore, knowing that each time Desiree's mother comes upon L'Abri she shudders, one can assume that the home and movement of the story will not be one filled with happiness and companionship.

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How do atmosphere and setting in "Désirée's Baby" reflect the characters' mental states?

Like so many of Kate Chopin's stories, "Desiree's Baby" is set in  Creole Louisiana.  Old plantations and an old, venerable family name contrast with the unknown origin of a beautiful girl who is found lying asleep outside Valmonde plantation.  As a young man, Armand Aubigny, from a neighboring plantation "looked into her eyes and did not care" about Desiree's "obscure origin."  Like all Aubignys, secure in who he is, he falls in love, "as if struck by a pistol shot, not reasonably.

Considered fortunate to marry a gentleman of such a fine name, Desiree settles into L'Abri, the plantation of the Aubgnys, and gives birth to a son.  However, surrounded by Zandrine, the mulatto nurse and another mulatto who fans the baby, it is apparent that Desiree's baby is not white.  People come from neighboring areas to look at the baby, and Armand becomes distant with Desiree:

And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves.  Desiree was miserable enough to die.

Finally, Desiree sees what others have already seen.  When her husband enters, she asks him despairingly about the baby:  "Tell me what it means!" Armand "answers lightly":

I means that the child is not white; it means that you are not white."

In the Creole society, one that is male dominated, the question of any problem with Amand Aubigny's ancestor does not enter his mind.  The colored blood must come from his wife, whose origin is unknown.  Familiar with her society and the life at L'Abri, Desiree finds the nerve to counter this accusation, declaring "I am white!"  But, as the female in a male-dominated society, she is blamed.  This result is, of course, tragic, as Armand discovers the letter from his mother to his father, a letter that reveals her race and her happiness that it is hidden from her son, whom she adores.  Unquestionably, then, Kate Chopin's story is a tale of despair caused by the conventionalities of a Creole society in Louisiana.

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What is the mood of "Désirée's Baby"?

"Désirée's Baby" is dominated by an ominous, foreboding mood. Initially, the story takes on the feel of a fairy tale as Madame Valmondé remembers how she adopted the mysterious Désirée, a foundling, and how Désirée's husband, Armand, fell in love with her in an instant. However, this delicate sense of romance is crushed quickly. The eerie tone is established from the moment Madame Valmondé arrives at the L'Abri estate: she involuntarily shudders at the sight of the house, described as "sad looking" and dark. The house's gloominess is further suggested by the comparison of the roof to a "cowl" and the description of the trees on the grounds as "solemn."

Madame Valmondé's shock at the color of the baby's skin and Désirée's naïve happiness both accelerate the sense of foreboding. Desiree's statement that she is so happy that "it frightens [her]" contrasted with Madame Valmondé's concern amp up the dramatic tension. The sudden change from Désirée's maternal bliss to her sudden realization that her husband no longer loves her, combined with his avoidance of the baby and mistreatment of his slaves, keeps the foreboding tone tightening at a steady pace, especially since Désirée herself knows something is wrong but cannot identify what it is.

Even by the end, when Armand casts Désirée and their child out, the ominous tone does not let up: Desiree's disappearance into the wilderness, the lack of explanation of her fate, and Armand's burning of her belongings end the story on the most somber note.

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What is the mood of "Désirée's Baby"?

There is certainly a sense of foreboding in the story. We learn of Desiree's sad beginnings, awakening in the arms of a stranger, in a strange place, and crying for her "'Dada.'" Whether she accidentally wandered away from her parents or was abandoned there, both are quite sad. Then, the description of Armand Aubigny's love is somewhat alarming as well; the narrator says that the "Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot." This simile, comparing love to a gun firing, is rather off-putting and makes us somewhat uneasy because of the violence associated with it; a gun firing is not a gentle, affectionate, intimate sound—it is startling and destructive.

Next, we learn that Madame Valmonde has not been to visit Desiree in some four weeks—that's a lot of time for something to go wrong—and when she arrives at the plantation, "she shuddered at the first sight of it, as she always did. It was a sad looking place . . . " The fact that the mere sight of the estate makes Desiree's adopted mother feel so strange is another sign that danger, or some threat to Desiree's happiness, is lurking. Due to clues like these, the story has a foreboding, menacing kind of mood.

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What is the mood of "Désirée's Baby"?

I think that "Desiree's baby" is a tragedy, the author is sure that you know that it will not end happily by the hints she gives, for example, when Desiree's father reminds Armand that Desiree's background is not known. In that way, the mood is intense and anticipatory, as a reader, you're sort of always waiting to see what's going to go wrong, even when the current action is happy.

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What is the setting of "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin and how does it affect the mood?

Because the story takes place in antebellum Louisiana, the French names and background of the characters lend a special aura of remoteness, elegance, and mystery for most English-speaking readers. However, the same action could take place among Anglo-Americans in the old South. The same issue of "miscegenation," the secret history of slavery, existed everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, regardless of the nationality—whether Anglo-Saxon, French, or other European backgrounds—of the white people.

The impression one gets of the overall setting is that of an aristocratic world recreated in America by those who settled in Louisiana. It is interesting that after the upheaval of the French Revolution, the ruling class in the New World could seemingly continue with their own ancien régime in America after the one in Europe had been destroyed (though it was partially restored in France after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815). This was true even after Louisiana had been absorbed into the US in the Purchase of 1803. The setting of Chopin's story is emblematic of a people who are essentially living in the past, in a world of illusion. The mood is that of a kind of dreamworld, vague and unsettling, or even a nightmare, given the cruelty inherent in the plot and its outcome.

The more specific illusion in the story is revealed as we are told in the conclusion that it is Armand, not Désirée, who is the one of mixed background and whose darker looks the baby has inherited. After his rejection of Désirée, it is the sharpest illustration possible of the hypocrisy and brutality not only of Armand himself but of the entire system of the antebellum South—and later.

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What is the setting of "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin and how does it affect the mood?

The setting of "Désirée's Baby," one of the few stories that Kate Chopin set before the Civil War, is in the Bayou country of Louisiana. The Antebellum South enjoyed a luxurious and indulgent period for those plantation owners who were the aristocracy. On the other hand, for the slaves on the plantations, it was often an anxious time since there were those who suffered deprivations.

In the story, years ago when the childless Madame Valmondé found a baby sleeping in the shadow of a great pillar, she did not worry about the beautiful child's background, for she felt that the child was a gift from God. 

It was no wonder, when [Désirée] stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. . . . The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche. . . or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.

Despite his father's desire to investigate Désirée's background, Armand insists upon marrying her. After Désirée has her baby, she is very content and Armand has softened, now treating the slaves with some kindness. The mood is one of contentment.

However, after three months, Désirée senses a change. She knows that there is something menacing that threatens her family's happiness. After Madame Valmondé visits and looks at the baby in the daylight that streams though the window of the boudoir, she then glances at the "yellow" servant, and she realizes that the infant is not white. But she says nothing.

Désirée's mood of contentment changes. It becomes one of dark and frightening anxiety. When Désirée asks her husband about their baby, saying "What does it mean?" he replies that it means that Désirée is not white. Even though Désirée insists that she is by pointing to her hair and by showing him her arm and hand that are lighter than his, Armand refuses to believe her. So, Désirée anxiously writes to her mother, who in turn, responds by instructing her to return to her, accompanied by the baby. After Désirée shows her mother's letter to Armaud and asks what she should do, he tells her to go ahead and leave, repelling her for what he perceives as the cruelty and injustice dealt to him by fate. In complete despair, Désirée departs abstractedly with the baby in her arms. With no traveling clothes on, Désirée does not take the worn road; instead, she walks across an empty field and into the bayou area.

She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.

The conclusion of this story has a dark and despairing mood. Désirée seems to be lost, and Armaud burns everything connected to her, including her letters to him. But, in pulling out these letters to burn, Armaud comes across a letter written by his mother. She writes to his father about how glad she is that Armaud will never know his mother, a woman that is "cursed with the brand of slavery."

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What is the setting of "Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin and how does it affect the mood?

"Desiree's Baby," a short story by Kate Chopin, takes places in Creole Louisiana, during the period of time between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Historically, this location was known as the Antebellum South. Wealthy white plantation owners at this time were known for their possession of African slaves, and many for their cruelty to them. Racism, at this time in America's history, was a given, and it was neither unusual nor socially unacceptable to treat slaves like they were animals.

Desiree's husband in this story is such a character. He is described as having an "imperious and exacting nature." He is known for severe and strict ruling of the slaves he owns and quickness to punish them physically. Because of this, there is a tone of fear and foreboding over the short story. The slaves themselves must be fearful of their owner, but even Desiree seems cautious around her husband. She notes, whispering, after the birth of their baby that "he hasn't punished one of them--not one of them--since baby is born." Add to this tone the mystery that is established from the beginning of Desiree's ancestry, and later the mystery of her child's skin color. Both the fear and the mystery combine to create a very dark mood in this short story.

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