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Désirée's Baby
By Kate Chopin (1851-1904)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Foreshadowings
Désirée's Reaction
Armand's Irreverence
Vocabulary
Figures of Speech
Symbols
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Author Information
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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2010

Type of Work

......."Désirée's Baby" is a short story centering on human relationships in the southern United States before the Civil War. Kate Chopin wrote it in the fall of 1892 and  Vogue magazine published it in January 1893.

Setting

.......The action takes place in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century on two Louisiana plantations, one called Valmondé, a family name, and the other called L'Abri (French for shelter). The story begins in the warm-weather months and ends in autumn. 

Characters

Désirée: A young woman described by the narrator as "beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere." When she was a very small child—of "toddling age," the narrator says—she was abandoned in front of a plantation home. Its owners adopted her. 
Armand Aubigny: Young man who inherited his father's plantation, L'Abri. After he marries Désirée, they live at L'Abri.
The Baby: Male child of Armand and Désirée. Désirée notices several months after his birth that his physical characteristics are those of a person of mixed racial ancestry.
Monsieur and Madame Valmondé: Childless husband and wife who found Désirée when she was a baby. After adopting her, they lovingly reared her. 
La Blanche: Female slave of mixed ancestry.
Zandrine: Female slave who helps Désirée care for her child.
Negrillon: Male slave who pretends to have suffered a leg burn in order to be excused from work.
Deceased Parents of Armand Aubigny: They lived in Paris with Armand until Madame Aubigny died. Armand was eight years old at the time. His father then brought the boy to Louisiana. Armand inherited L'Abri after Monsieur Aubigny died. 
Neighbors Who Visit L'Abri

Point of View

.......Kate Chopin presents "Désirée's Baby" in omniscient third-person point of view, meaning that the narrator not only describes events as they unfold but also reveals the thoughts of the characters from time to time, as in this sentence: "When the baby was about three months old, Desiree awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace." 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2010

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.......When Madame Valmondé drives over to see Désirée and her baby for the first time in a month, she remembers when Désirée herself was a baby. Her husband had found Désirée sleeping next to a pillar as he rode through the gateway of the Valmondé home in southern Louisiana. No one knew where she came from or who put her there. The Valmondés adopted and reared her.
.......That was eighteen years before. Désirée is now a “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere” young lady,” the narrator says. Armand Aubigny had known her since he was eight, when his father brought him to America  from Paris after his mother died. But it was not until he saw her when she was a fully grown young lady that he fell in love with her. At the time, he was riding by the Valmondé residence while she was in front of the house.
.......“The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles,” the narrator says.
.......Not long afterward, they became husband and wife.
.......When Madame Valmondé arrives at the stuccoed Aubigny home, its appearance unsettles her, as it always does. 
.......“The roof came down steep and black like a cowl,” the narrator says, and the shade of oak trees surrounding the dwelling suggested that it was a tomb rather than a house. The Negroes who man the place are dispirited, for Armand is a demanding master. When his father was in charge, they were in high spirits.
.......When Madame Valmondé enters the house, Désirée is on a couch holding the baby. It is asleep. Standing at a window is the baby's nurse, Zandrine. Madame is surprised at how the child, a boy, has grown. Désirée tells her mother that Armand is pleased with the child—so much so that his mood has lightened and he no longer punishes any of the Negroes. His happiness makes Désirée happy, for she is deeply in love with him.
.......But when the baby is three months old, a dark spirit descends over Armand. He is sullen and stern. Gone from his eyes is the gleam of love for his wife. Sometimes he stays away from home for long periods. 
.......“And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves,” the narrator says.
.......One hot afternoon while sitting in her bedroom, Désirée experiences an uneasy feeling as she fingers the strands of her hair. On the bed, her baby sleeps soundly. A quadroon boy is fanning him. When she looks at her child, then at the quadroon—the son of La Blanche, one of their slaves—her “blood turned like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face,” the narrator says. She dismisses the boy. A short while later, Armand enters the room to search through documents on a table. Désirée rises, walks over to him, and says, “Armand, look at our child. What does it mean?”
.......What it means, he tells her, is that their child is not white and that Désirée is not white. She refuses to accept his answer, pointing out that her hair is brown, her eyes are gray, and her skin is white.
.......“As white as La Blanche's,” he says. He leaves the room.
.......She immediately writes a letter to Madame Valmondé, saying, “"My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told me I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true. You must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live."
.......Madame's reply neither confirms nor denies that Désirée is white. It simply tells Désirée to return home with her baby—“back to your mother who loves you.” Désirée shows her mother's letter to Armand and asks him whether he wants her to go. “Yes,” he says, “I want you to go.”
.......Because of the injury she had caused him, he no longer loves her. Now it is her time to suffer, he thinks, and well she should. Without changing out of her slippers and white gown, Désirée fetches her baby from the nurse and walks away, out into the late-afternoon sun of the October day. Rather than following the road to Valmondé, she goes through stubbly fields that hurt her feet and tear at her gown. 
.......Weeks later at L'Abri, the Negroes tend a bonfire in which Armand burns the baby's cradle, its clothes, Désirée's gowns, and her embroideries, gloves, and bonnets. From a drawer in the house, he withdraws the letters he had received from her during their courtship. They, too, will burn. In the same drawer, he discovers a letter his mother had written to his father, expressing thanks to God for the love she received from her husband. Armand reads it. It says, in part, “I thank God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery."
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Themes

Racism and Gender Bias

Like many other American men of the mid-nineteenth century South, Armand Aubigny bases the worth of a person primarily on his or her race and gender. Women are subordinate to men, he believes, and persons with a black in their family tree are little more than subhuman. As master of the L'Abri plantation, he is a strict taskmaster who treats the slaves harshly—so much so, the narrator says, that the “negroes had forgotten how to be gay.” As a husband, Armand clearly rules the home. “When he frowned, [Désirée] trembled,” the narrator observes. “When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.”  Although his manner softens after the child is born, his demeanor remains in question. As Désirée observes, “Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not,—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't true.” In other words, Armand judges the worth of the child according to its gender (in addition to its race).  A male meant that the proud Aubigny name and aristocratic heritage would endure, perhaps for many generations. However, when Armand discovers that the child has Negro blood, he becomes sullen and cruel, and he makes it known that his wife and child are no longer welcome at L'Abri. He even tries to erase their memory by burning all their clothing and household items. 

Judging by Appearances

Armand loved Désirée's outer beauty, not her inner beauty. She was a trophy. When the trophy became tarnished in his eyes, he removed it from its shelf and discarded it. He also rejected his child, for its skin exhibited a taint of impurity. Finally, like other Old South plantation owners, he viewed the blackness of his slaves as a defect that colored even their souls. However, conversation between Désirée and Madame Valmondé indicates that he apparently found time for La Blanche, the slave woman whose name (French for white) suggests that she was of mixed heritage, with light skin that made her a tolerable sexual object for Armand. Désirée, speaking of the loudness of her baby's crying, says, “Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin.”

Real Love Is Colorblind

The narrator says Armand "no longer loved [Désirée] because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name." Rejecting her because he believes she is of mixed heritage indicates that he never truly loved her in the first place. Real love is colorblind. On the other hand, after Désirée informs her mother of developments at L'Abri, Madame Valmondé tells her in a return letter, ""My own Desiree: Come home to Valmondé; back to your mother who loves you. Come with your child."

Climax

.......The climax occurs when Désirée realizes that her baby is of mixed racial heritage. This moment precipitates the tragic events that follow.

Foreshadowings

Désirée's "Obscure Origin"

The following passage—describing Armand's attitude regarding the lack of information about Désirée's family history—foreshadows his assumption that Désirée's ancestry included a black African.

Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl's obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. 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?
After he discovered that his child was a mixed ancestry, it was easy for him to conclude that his wife was the one with Désirée was the one with mixed blood in her veins. 
L'Abri's Appearance

The foreboding appearance of the exterior of Armand's home reflects his inner world and foreshadows the malevolence that possesses him after Désirée questions him about their child. Here is the description of L'Abri, presented when Madame Valmondé visits the plantation house. "It was a sad looking place. . . . 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." 

"Something in the Air"

Désirée detects a change for the worse in the atmosphere at L'Abri when her child is three months old, although she cannot fully explain what she feels. Her presentiment, along with a change in the demeanor of her husband, foreshadows the unhappy events that result in the destruction of her marriage. Here is the passage describing her feelings and the change in Armand's behavior.

When the baby was about three months old, Désirée awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace. It was at first too subtle to grasp. It had only been a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks; unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming. Then a strange, an awful change in her husband's manner, which she dared not ask him to explain. When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed to have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse. And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves. Désirée was miserable enough to die.
Armand's Complexion

The following passage foreshadows the ending, when Armand reads the letter about his own background. The key sentence is underlined.

A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. "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's Reaction to Her Supposed Racial Origin

.......When Armand tells Désirée that she is not white, her reaction suggests that she feels disgraced. She tells him, "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. Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand." Then, when composing a letter to Madame Valmondé, she writes, "My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told me I am not white. For God's sake tell them it is not true. You must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live."
.......However, it is likely that what distresses Désirée is not her and her baby's racial heritage per se. Rather, it is a fear that Armand will reject them because he views them as racially impure. Her fear, of course, is well founded. 

Armand's Irreverence

.......One passage in the story is particularly revealing in regard to the depth of Armand's malevolence. It occurs after he tells Désirée that he wants her to leave L'Abri. The narrator says, "He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife's soul." 

Vocabulary

bayou: Marsh near a river or lake.
cochon de lait: Suckling pig.
corbeille: French for wedding gifts or trousseau. Literally, the word means basket. 
layette: Clothing for a newborn baby.
peignoir: Woman's negligee or bathrobe.
quadroon: Person descended from one black grandparent and three white grandparents.
unwonted: Unexpected.

Figures of speech

.......The most important figure of speech in the story is irony. It occurs most notably at the end, when Armand discovers that it is he who is of mixed racial ancestry. Another example of irony is the fact that Désirée's child becomes fatherless after Armand rejects his wife and the boy. Eighteen years before, Désirée, crying "Dada," was fatherless when Monsieur Valmondé found her. 
.......Here are examples of other figures of speech:

Alliteration

And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him 
sun's rays brought a golden gleam
She did not take the broad, beaten road 
In the centre of the smoothly swept back yard was a great bonfire. 

Metaphor

[Désirée] was striving to penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about her
Comparison of the atmosphere in Désirée's room to a mist

"Armand," she called to him, in a voice which must have stabbed him
Comparison of Désirée's voice to a knife

Simile

The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire. . . .
Comparison of the rush of Armand's passion to the movement of an avalanche and a prairie fire

The roof came down steep and black like a cowl 
Comparison of the pitch of the roof to that of a monk's hood

their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall
Comparison of the shadows cast by an oak tree to a pall

The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy.
Comparison of the bed to a throne

The blood turned like ice in her veins 
Comparison of blood to ice

She was like a stone image: silent, white, motionless after she placed it there.
Comparison of Désirée to a statue

Symbols

.......The following can be interpreted as symbols in "Désirée's Baby."

pillar in front of the Valmondé home: Strength and protection. Monsieur Valmondé found Désirée sleeping next to the pillar when she was a baby. As a young woman, she leans against it when Armand notices her.
L'Abri: The foreboding appearance of this plantation home symbolizes Armand's dark moods.
bonfire: The destruction of the memory of Désirée and the baby.
October sunset: The ending of Désirée's marriage to Armand.

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Author Information

.......Kate Chopin (1851-1904) is best known for her short stories (more than 100) and a novel, The Awakening. One of her recurring themesthe problems facing women in a society that repressed themmade her literary works highly popular in the late twentieth century. They remain popular today. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1...Write two to four paragraphs that extend the conclusion of "Désirée's Baby." In these paragraphs, answer at least one of the following questions: Will Armand keep quiet about his mixed racial heritage? Will he have a change of heart and try to reconcile with Désirée? Will his attitude to slavery and blacks change?
2...Do people of mixed racial heritage suffer widespread prejudice in modern society?
3...Write an essay explaining what a typical day was like for a slave laborer on a cotton plantation.
4...Are you the child of a black parent and a white parent? If so, explain to your classmates the reaction of people when they learn of your background.  

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