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Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" was first published in 1893. It's one of Chopin's most popular short stories. It's set in Louisiana before the American Civil War.
This article has a summary and then looks at themes and foreshadowing.
Summary of "Désirée's Baby"
When Désirée was a toddler, she was found lying by the Valmondé's gate. They took her in. Madame Valmondé viewed her as a gift from God. She grew up to be beautiful.
When Désirée was eighteen, Armand Aubigny suddenly fell in love with her. Monsieur Valmondé confirmed that her unknown origins wouldn't be a problem. Armand didn't care. They were married as soon as possible.
Madame Valmondé visits Désirée and the baby. It's been four weeks since she last saw them. Désirée rests on a couch with the baby asleep beside her. When Madame Valmondé sees the baby she's surprised by its appearance.
Désirée talks of how the baby has grown and how loudly he cries. Madame Valmondé picks up the baby and examines it carefully. She also looks carefully at Zandrine, a slave who sits by the window.
Désirée talks about how proud Armand is of his boy. His temperament is improved as well, as he hasn't punished one of the slaves since the birth. In fact, his mood has been greatly improved since he fell in love.
When the baby is about three months old, things change. She gets a different feeling from the slaves. She also gets some unnecessary visits from her more distant neighbors.
Armand starts avoiding her and the baby. He doesn't look at her with love anymore. He treats the slaves worse than he did before his marriage. Désirée is miserable.
She sits in her room one afternoon, thinking about what has gone wrong. She watches as a little quadroon boy fans the baby. She looks back and forth between the two and lets out a cry. She can't speak; she dismisses the boy with gestures. She's scared.
Armand enters the room to get some papers. Désirée asks him what the baby's appearance means. He says it means she's not white. She rejects this, saying she's whiter that he is. He says she's as white as La Blanche, the mulatto slave.
Désirée writes a letter to Madame Valmondé, asking her to tell everyone that she's white. The return letter simply tells her to come back home with the baby where she is loved.
She shows the letter to Armand and asks if she should go. He says yes. He feels like the situation is a punishment from God. He doesn't love Désirée anymore.
She's stunned and leaves. She gets the baby. She leaves home, walks across a field and into the bayou. She's never seen again.
Several weeks later, Armand has a bonfire in his backyard. He provides the material and watches as his slaves keep the fire going.
All of Désirée's and the baby's things are put on the pyre. The last thing he finds is a stack of old letters from their courtship. In the back of the drawer, there's a letter from his mother to his father. She thanks him for his love, but most of all, she's thankful to God that Armand will never know his mother is black.
Identity is probably the most prominent theme in the story. A person's identity, particularly their racial background, is a major determining factor in their quality of life.
Désirée's identity is unknown. Normally, this would have resulted in a life of poverty and hard work. She was rescued from this by the Valmonde's, who took her in, thus giving her some of their identity.
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Even though Désirée has been taken in by the Valmonde's, this doesn't erase all concerns about her origin. Monsieur Valmonde "grew practical" when he found out about Armand's interest. He knows that her lack of a distinguished pedigree could end up being a problem. This is when everyone involved assumes Désirée is white. The worry here, which Monsieur Valmonde completely understands, is that Désirée is a "nobody" in their society. This makes her a potentially unsuitable match for Armand, who has an old and proud lineage.
We also see that identity and appearance aren't exactly the same.
The mulatto slave, Le Blanche, looks white. However, her mixed racial heritage is known, therefore, she's viewed as black. Her child, the boy who fans the baby, is one quarter black, so he's also viewed as black. It's certainly likely that this boy is the son of Armand. We know his father is white, so Armand is the most likely candidate. We're also given a clue when Désirée says she could hear the baby crying from "La Blanche's cabin."
The opposite effect is seen in Armand. We're told his skin is on the darker side. His lineage is beyond reproach, though, so he's viewed as unquestionably white.
While identity and appearance aren't entirely the same, they often overlap, as appearance is the most obvious indicator of who someone is.
We see this when Madame Valmondé visits the baby after a month has passed. The baby's darker skin makes her exclaim, "This is not the baby!" She knows the baby's appearance makes it impossible that the child be identified as Armand's son.
The baby's appearance changes Désirée's identity in an instant. It takes a little while for her new status to change her life, but it's inevitable. The gossip spreads quickly, leading to 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." She isn't who she used to be, and can't live the same kind of life.
This change in Désirée's identity is so pronounced that she doesn't want to live at all. She also doesn't want her child to have this life either.
The story's surprise ending highlights the theme of identity. Armand finds out his identity is false. Of course, this revelation doesn't change him in any way that really matters. He's already shown his character. But it means everything in regards to his position in life.
No one else's identity really matters either, outside of the societal implications. People are judged mainly on their racial "purity". Their behavior is a distant second when it comes to their value. Armand is known for his harsh treatment of his slaves, but there's no indication this lowers him in the eyes of his neighbors. In contrast, Désirée is "beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere", but this doesn't save her when it's believed she has black blood.
Love also features prominently in the story. A definite contrast is seen between the love of Armand and his father.
Armand falls in love suddenly with Désirée. We can assume his father fell in love with his mother the same way, as "That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot." The difference is Armand fell out of love just as quickly.
Armand stops loving Désirée because of the "injury she had brought upon his home and his name." He clearly cares more about himself. He loved Désirée only as long as she was a prize. His father married his mother despite her background. Admittedly, he wasn't living in Louisiana at the time. Still, it shows he didn't have a personal prejudice in the matter; he didn't view Armand's mother as unworthy of being his wife, as Armand later views Désirée and how he always viewed La Blanche.
Parental love is also important in the story. The Valmondés took Désirée in and loved her. This feeling endured through her reversal in fortune. Madame Valmondé asks Désirée to come home, "back to your mother who loves you."
Armand's parents show they love him as well. His mother is most thankful for the ability to keep Armand's racial heritage a secret. His father obviously had to want this too. This prevents Armand from living the life of a slave, or at the least, an outsider. Armand doesn't show this same love for his son with La Blanche, nor does he protect his son with Désirée from this fate.
Is there any foreshadowing?
The ending is foreshadowed in many ways, so it's not as shocking as it could first seem.
Throughout, Désirée is associated with whiteness and light:
- The Valmondé's view her as a gift from Providence and an idol.
- She wears "soft white muslins and laces."
- She has brown hair, gray eyes and fair skin; she's whiter than Armand.
- The sun's rays bring out "a golden gleam" in her hair.
In contrast, Armand is associated with blackness or darkness:
- His place is "black like a cowl" and "branches shadowed it like a pall."
- He has a "dark, handsome face."
- "The very spirit of Satan" seemed to be operating in him.
- His skin is darker than Désirée's.