36 pages 1 hour read

Kate Chopin

Desiree's Baby

Fiction | Short Story | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Désirée’s Baby”

“Désirée’s Baby” is a short story by Kate Chopin, first published under the title “The Father of Désirée's Baby,” in Vogue on January 14, 1893. It later appeared in Chopin’s 1894 short story collection Bayou Folk. The story takes place in Louisiana in the antebellum, or pre-Civil War, period. Its characters are Creole—descendants of colonists who lived in Louisiana during its periods of French and Spanish rule, who typically spoke French and practiced Catholicism. Chopin, herself, was Creole and is known for her work that centered women in late 19th-century Southern American society.

Told in third-person point-of-view, “Désirée’s Baby” opens with Madame Valmondé driving to visit her daughter, Désirée, and her new grandchild, whom she hasn’t seen in four weeks. Désirée was discovered as a toddler by the gates of the Valmondé estate, perhaps left behind by a band of travelers. Madame Valmondé believes that God sent her Désirée, since she could not have children of her own.

It was at those same gates that Désirée, as an 18-year-old, attracted the attention of Armand Aubigny. He fell in love with her instantly, as is the habit of the men in his family. Armand lived in France with his father and mother until he was eight years old; when his mother died, he and his father returned to the United States.

Upon arriving at Armand Aubigny’s estate, L’Abri, Madame Valmondé ’s mood changes from light to heavy. She feels a chill entering the property and recalls how Armand Aubigny’s father was “easy-going and indulgent” (Paragraph 7), especially when it came to treatment of the people he enslaved. Armand, unlike his father, is strict, and this contributes to Madame Valmondé’s negative impression of the place.

When Madame Valmondé finally greets her daughter Désirée, who is recovering from childbirth, she’s shocked at the appearance of the infant. Désirée misinterprets this shock to be in reference to the baby’s growth. Madame Valmondé agrees the baby is different from when she last saw, but she doesn’t articulate exactly what she’s observed and instead asks about what Armand thinks. Désirée replies that Armand is proud and that one result of his happiness is that he’s stopped punishing the enslaved people. Désirée is happy, largely because her husband is happy.

Later, when the baby is three months old, Désirée senses an inexplicable threat in the air. She suspects that people around her know something she doesn’t. Armand turns angry and hateful and returns to abusing the people he enslaves. It’s only when Désirée sees her son side-by-side with the son of an enslaved woman that she begins to see her son in a new way. Unable to put words to this, she asks her husband, who tells her what he already has figured out that her son is not white and she, therefore, is not white either.

Désirée begs Armand to reconsider her fair skin and grey eyes, but he rejects her. Désirée writes to her mother, begging her to confirm her whiteness and saying she’ll die if she’s not: “I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live” (Paragraph 28). Madame Valmondé neither confirms nor denies this but rather tells Désirée to bring her baby and come back home. Désirée asks Armand if she should go. When Armand tells her she should leave, Désirée takes the baby from the arms of Zandrine, an enslaved nursemaid, and exits the house. Instead of going home, Désirée wanders into a field, where the terrain begins to wear away at her clothes and body.

The story jumps forward a few weeks to when Armand, with the aid of the workers he enslaves, methodically burns every household relic belonging to Désirée and the baby. When he goes to burn her love letters, he finds an old letter from his mother to his father. In the letter, Armand’s mother reveals that she (and, by extension, Armand) “belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (Paragraph 47) and that God has organized the family’s life in such a way that Armand would never find out.