'Désirée’s Baby' by Kate Chopin is a thought-provoking short story that delves into the themes of race and gender. Published in 1893, it continues to be widely studied due to its exploration of these complex topics. The story revolves around a woman named Désirée who marries a plantation owner. However, when their child is born, Désirée is taken aback to discover that the baby is of mixed race.
In the story, Madame Valmondé, Désirée's adopted mother, visits her newly married daughter and Armand Aubigny, the plantation owner. Désirée has recently given birth to a baby girl. Madame Valmondé reflects on how her husband had found an abandoned baby, Désirée, many years ago, and they had lovingly adopted her.
Armand Aubigny, who moved to Louisiana from Paris at a young age, falls in love with Désirée as she grows into a woman, and they marry. Despite Désirée's orphaned background, Armand is unconcerned and desires to marry her.
As Madame Valmondé approaches L'Abri, Armand's plantation, she notices a sense of sadness surrounding the place. The black slaves who work there lack happiness, a stark contrast to the contentment they experienced under Armand's late father.
When Madame Valmondé sees Désirée's four-week-old baby, she is shocked by the child's mixed-race appearance. However, Désirée insists that her husband is proud of their son and has treated the slaves with kindness since the baby's birth. Yet, three months later, Désirée senses a growing distance between her and her husband.
When Désirée confronts Armand about their child, he callously informs her that she must be of mixed race and is not white. Devastated, Désirée writes to her mother, pleading for her to refute the accusation. Madame Valmondé urges Désirée to return home with the child. When Désirée asks Armand for guidance, he coldly instructs her to leave. His love for her has faded due to the perceived shame she has brought upon his name and household.
Reluctantly, Désirée embarks on a difficult journey to her adoptive mother's home, taking her baby with her. The story concludes with Armand burning various items, including some letters. Among these letters is one from Armand's mother, addressed to his father, which reveals his black ancestry. His mother expresses gratitude to God for concealing this truth from Armand, as their racial background is associated with the curse of slavery.
Analysis of 'Désirée’s Baby'
The Ambiguous Twist Ending
Kate Chopin’s 'Désirée’s Baby' may appear to have a conclusive ending, but the twist at the end leaves room for ambiguity. The revelation that Armand Aubigny, not Désirée, has black ancestry raises questions about his knowledge of his own heritage. It is unclear whether he was aware of his ancestry all along or if this truth is a surprise to him. This ambiguity adds complexity to the story and invites readers to consider the implications of Armand's actions and motivations.
Désirée's Whiteness and Innocence
Throughout the story, Chopin emphasizes Désirée's fair complexion and purity through descriptions of her white clothing. These references not only highlight her physical appearance but also symbolize her innocence and lack of guilt. Despite the accusations leveled against her and the doubts surrounding her child's race, Désirée remains morally blameless. The ending suggests that she may not be responsible for the mixed-race heritage of their child.
Unanswered Questions about Désirée's Ancestry
The story does not definitively reveal whether Désirée herself has black ancestry. The original longer title, 'The Father of Désirée’s Baby,' shifted the focus onto Armand, suggesting that both parents' racial backgrounds were in question. The change in title centers the story on Désirée and her role as a wife and mother. The narrative encourages readers to question whether the revelation of mixed-race heritage should outweigh the happiness and love they have experienced as a family.
Miscegenation and Social Stigma
'Désirée’s Baby' explores the theme of miscegenation, a highly controversial topic in late-nineteenth-century America. Armand, as a white plantation owner, understands the social implications and potential damage to his reputation that siring a mixed-race child could bring. The story reflects the racial hierarchy and societal prejudices of the time. Armand's concern for his home and name underscores the significance placed on reputation in their society.
The Importance of Names
The significance of names is highlighted in the story. Armand is initially captivated by Désirée despite her lack of a known family name. He offers her a prestigious name, one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana. However, Désirée's nameless origins become a source of concern for Armand when her lack of a name suggests the possibility of miscegenation. The story illustrates the sensitive nature of racial mixing and the impact it can have on family and social standing.
'Désirée’s Baby' delves into the complexities of race, gender, and social expectations. Chopin challenges readers to question societal prejudices and the destructive power they hold over personal happiness. The story serves as a reminder of the sensitive nature of racial heritage and the profound impact it can have on individuals and their relationships.