‘Desiree’s Baby’ by Kate Chopin: Short Story Analysis
‘Desiree’s Baby’ is a pre-American Civil War short story penned by an American writer of great renown, Kate Chopin. Chopin is considered to be one of the first feminist writers who lived during the nineteenth-century. ‘Desiree’s Baby’ is one of her most studied pieces whose central theme is about racism and slavery that existed in America and, sadly, subtly exists even to this date. The story is about a wealthy family of cotton plantation owners near Texas. The family of Valmonde adopts an unknown baby whom they call Desiree. She looks like a true white American and becomes the heir to the Valmonde fortune. She gets married to another wealthy plantation owner named Armand Aubigny, who falls in love with Desiree. Their marriage goes on well until a child is born to them, whose skin color is questionable—all question Desiree’s race and ancestry at Aubigny.
The central theme of racism is dramatically put forward. The story is hard-hitting and a thriller because not even the father and mother of Desiree could tell whether their daughter was what the Americans term as ‘quadroon’, a one-quarter black person by descent or not. They had adopted the child when she was abandoned at a pillar in toddlerhood, under that same pillar where Desiree’s husband, Armand, would fall head over heels in love with her. He was told of her vague ancestry but was blind to all the warnings given to him. When a son is born to Desiree and Armand we see that Armand was happy because:
- Armand managed to get a male heir to his property and the family heir and not a girl. Though Desiree claims that if they had had a girl, it wouldn’t have made a difference to Arman. She was presumptuous, of course; it would have made a difference. Armand was not only a terrible racist and cruel slave driver but was also gender-biased. He preferred boys to girls.
- Armand presumes the child is white by race even though his mother-in-law thinks otherwise. It is only when the child is three months old that on close observation, it becomes clear that the child is biracial (these are new and queer words to a cosmopolitan Mumbai Indian like me). When the son was young, Armand felt that as the boy would grow older, he would turn out to be white like the mother.
- At first, when a white male is born to the Aubigny family, it seemed that the family name was honored and that Desiree’s racial blood was not ‘of the cursed race’.
Armand becomes a bit less harsh on the Black slaves in his cotton plantation. Otherwise, he was a person who was very ruthless in dealing with the Black slaves, even violent. The specter of racism haunts the story: We recognize racism in words used by the wealthy plantation owners, we see it in the servants, and in the descriptions of the cotton plantation of Armand or the Aubigny family. These images of slavery painted with Chopin’s deft pen make us lose sight that even Armand’s ancestry was questionable. As the story comes to a dramatic and catastrophic climax, we realize that Armand’s mother was a Black from an old letter. The information about his mother’s death in Paris is an attempt by Chopin to draw the reader’s attention away from this crucial point.
The story ends with a discovery that pierces the heart and personifies Kate Chopin as a genius and social activist. Chopin is a Victorian writer but seems more cosmopolitan and pluralistic than many of my contemporary writers and people presently in high places. You cringe with sheer horror when after three months, it dawns on Desiree why her husband and his family were ignoring the baby boy and her. It is a suspenseful and frightening scene when Desiree compares La Blanche’s quadroon little son with her son, and realize they look alike. It is a subtle hint of a mother’s blind love for her child and touch at dismissiveness or denial where the infant’s race or reality was concerned.
It is pathetic that just because Desiree’s father informed Armand about her vague ancestry, Armand did not consider that he could have been the cause of this ‘problem’. Being of the preferred sex, he felt his dubious origin was unquestionable, and Desiree was at fault. We know that Armand’s father was alive when all this occurred but never came out with the truth. However, Desiree’s father and mother accept that their grandchild could be biracial, and so when they heard that Armand was ignoring the wife and child, they volunteered to take mother and son back. Notice also in Chopin’s narration how she makes Desiree mention that ‘her’ skin was ‘whiter’ than Armand’s skin. That should have given us the clue of where lay the cause of the ‘problem’.
Desiree’s desperateness is unnerving. It is heartbreaking and frightening to see her question Armand about why he was ignoring the child. L’Abri is where they lived. L’Abri is French for ‘the shelter,’ which is ironic, as the estate quickly ceases to be a shelter for Desiree and her biracial child. She doesn’t want to go back to her parents because she feels that they are to blame for her present predicament.
There is a reference made of Desiree leaving the mansion with her son dressed in a nightgown. She is symbolized as a haunting gothic ghost who, after she walks the narrow road to a bayou with her child, is never seen again. That is one haunting Gothic element to the story. The image of Desiree’s translucent white gown getting torn to shreds and her pale feet bruised is a symbol of the pain her ‘purity’ or race or truth was undergoing. She came into her mother’s and father’s life from nowhere, and she disappears into nowhere at the end.
Armand makes a bonfire of the corbeille he had bought Desiree for their wedding. Ironically, the corbeille was being burnt by the Black slaves of his plantation. Corbeille is an elegant basket of flowers or fruit, but in this case, it means the appropriate cloth fabrics given to a woman on the day of her marriage. The Black slaves were burning Desiree’s corbeille, the white wife of a quadroon hating man called Armand. It is the height of the fury and flame of racism that Arman didn’t even mourn his wife’s or son’s death just because they were not white. Arman felt that they had ruined his name and the name of his family. He feels victimized until he reads his mother’s letter. What happens after that is left to conjecture, but what is evident is that it leaves a lasting impression on our minds. In the end, Desiree stands vindicated.
‘Desiree’s Baby’ is indeed a disturbing story that even today is part of our reality. Despite the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, racism is still something that Americans have to deal with even today. But if you read between the lines of this story, you realize that the only way to rid ourselves of this discriminatory behavior is to question how we look at others and ourselves. Desiree loved her child, but she too at the end of the day was racist because she felt that if she and her child belonged to the Black race, there was no reason to live. Before we tackle the ‘Armands’ of our world, we need to tackle the ‘Desirees’ of our world. Stop the hate and put an end to racism. That is what Chopin’s story boils down to at the end of the day.
I read this short story when I was a child at school, and it still has the same terrifying effect on me as it did back then. I must have been thirteen years of age when I read it in my school library. I’ve always found Chopin to be an astounding writer. I have reviewed another short story of Kate Chopin titled ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’; be free to check it out. I hope to read more of Kate Chopin’s short stories soon.
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