Désirée's Baby Themes
The main themes in “Désirée’s Baby” are racism, gender, and hypocrisy.
- Racism: Armand’s cruelty, both toward Désirée and those he enslaves, is based on entrenched ideas of race. Ironically, Armand himself turns out to have Black ancestry.
- Gender: The misogyny of the society Chopin depicts is clear from Désirée’s experiences both before and after the birth of her child.
- Hypocrisy: Throughout the story, hypocrisy marks race, gender, and class hierarchies, thus revealing exactly how harsh and arbitrary such divisions are.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Chopin’s story depicts the clear and systematic racism of antebellum Louisiana and, by extension, the United States as a whole. Before leaving L’Abri, Désirée has led the same privileged life as those born into the upper-class South, though she was a foundling. This existence is possible because she is white. Armand, her husband, is the epitome of a vain, cruel plantation owner of the period. He mistreats the enslaved people who work for him, though the presence of Désirée and the birth of their baby both temporarily ameliorate his behavior. Armand was supposedly madly in love with Désirée, but the moment he concludes that the baby—his own baby—is not white, he coldly rejects both of them, not only encouraging Désirée to leave their home but also not having the slightest concern as to what will become of their child.
The mere fact of a society based on race slavery is cruel enough, but one might think that some measure of kindness would be possible even toward those who are regarded as inferior based on their skin color. Armand, however, seems to lack even the smallest capacity for basic human compassion. Racism extends to those whose ancestry is only a fraction Black. Among the enslaved people at L’Abri, Armand’s estate, are “quadroons” (an outdated term for those with one-quarter Black ancestry) and other people of mixed white and Black descent. In fact, Armand himself is mixed-race, as is proven by his mother’s letter at the end of the story—and yet this does not induce him to treat others with care.
Armand treats Désirée as a possession even when he is in love with her and still believes she is white. The dysfunction and oppression of the time period’s patriarchal society—and the way it affects the intertwined aspects of race, gender, and sexual relations—is clear from a simple detail. Désirée tells Madame Valmondé that the baby’s voice is so loud and clear that Armand can hear it “as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.” This is stated in such an offhand, matter-of-fact way that some readers might miss its significance. What, one might ask, is Armand doing in La Blanche’s cabin? In all probability, he seems to be having a sexual relationship with La Blanche, and because he enslaves her and has power over her, it is impossible for the relationship to be fully consensual. This act was quite common in the antebellum South, and it accounted for enslaved people of mixed ancestry on many plantations of the time period.
What might be somewhat unusual in this case is that Désirée openly refers to the fact that Armand was at the enslaved woman’s quarters, though she does not say the reason for his presence there. The wives of slave owners were usually quite aware of their husbands’ activities with enslaved women, but for the most part, they did not speak so openly of these relationships.
Chopin’s story thus reveals the powerlessness of women on several levels. Désirée, though married to Armand, has no power when he rejects her for his belief that she isn’t white. But even when she was the mistress of his house—and supposedly the love of his life—she had little power to change his behavior toward other women. Enslaved women like La Blanche are doubly powerless: they are not free, and in some cases, they are forced to have sex with the very men who enslave them.
Hypocrisy encompasses and forms the basis of both race and gender oppression in the story. Though Armand cruelly rejects Désirée for his belief that she has Black ancestry, he...
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evidently has no qualms about having sexual relations with the enslaved Black women on his plantation. Chopin repeatedly refers to enslaved people of mixed-race ancestry, including a woman named La Blanche and one of her sons, a “quadroon” boy, and it is likely that Armand (and perhaps his father) having sex with enslaved Black women is the cause.
The most hypocritical act in the story is Armand’s banishing of Désirée based on her allegedly “impure” ancestry, when Armand himself is the one revealed to be partly of Black descent. There is no sign that he recognizes how reprehensible his own behavior has been, even after he has uncovered the letter from his mother saying that she “belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.” Armand’s cruelty is such that he has those enslaved on his plantation systematically throw into the bonfire not only every trace of Désirée herself but also the evidence of his own hypocrisy.
The Ancien Régime
It’s unclear if “Désirée’s Baby” takes place before or after Louisiana was absorbed into the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. All of the white characters in it (except possibly Désirée herself, whose ancestry is unknown) are of French descent, and Armand was brought up until the age of eight in France, where his mother died. Even in the New World, the French upper classes were attempting to recreate the ancien régime: the old aristocratic society that was (at least partially) destroyed in the French Revolution of 1789. In this, they were really no different from their Anglo-American counterparts in the Old South. The Southern antebellum world, the wealth of which was almost entirely based on African slavery, was another version of the feudal society of old Europe.
Regardless of the specific year in which “Désirée’s Baby” takes place, Louisiana, like the rest of the South, is a kind of fantasy world for those who possess wealth. At this point in history, they are able to insulate themselves from the changes taking place elsewhere and the gradual destruction of inherited class distinctions.
The characters in “Désirée’s Baby” are all in some sense dominated by an illusory view of themselves and of the outside world. Perhaps the greatest irony is that, although Armand is shown at the end of the story to be of mixed Black and white ancestry, it’s still possible that Désirée herself is also partly of African descent. She knows nothing about who her biological parents are.
In any society where there are people of different races, it’s theoretically possible that anyone is of mixed ancestry. As a man who has sexual relations with the women he enslaves, Armand should know this, even before he discovers the letter from his mother that proves his own Black ancestry. But he, as well as other plantation owners, persists in maintaining his delusional constructs about racial purity and the supposed right of one race to dominate and enslave another. The main characters’ wealth, estates, furnishings, and clothing are all predicated on this illusion: they have been created through a primitive, retrogressive system, a New World feudalism that will eventually come crashing down.