Madame Valmondé travels from her home on a Louisiana plantation to the neighboring plantation to visit her recently married daughter, Désirée. Désirée has given birth to her first child, and Madame Valmondé reflects that it seems not so long ago that she first held Désirée herself as a baby. Désirée was found by Monsieur Valmondé as an infant abandoned in the shadow of the stone pillar at the gate of their plantation. The Valmondés accepted the girl as their own, and Madame Valmondé believed the child had been sent to her by Providence because she couldn’t bear children of her own.
Eighteen years later, Désirée was standing near the same stone pillar where her adoptive father found her when Armand Aubigny, the young heir of the neighboring plantation L’Abri, rode past and fell in love with her at first sight. Armand fell in love suddenly and deeply, and nothing could persuade him to give up Désirée, despite Monsieur Valmondé’s cautions about her mysterious past. Armand ordered Désirée fine clothes and gifts from Paris, and the wedding took place.
Madame Valmondé arrives at L’Abri for her visit. She shudders at the foreboding appearance of the plantation house, which is cast into shadows by large oak trees and a low roof. The plantation has grown bleaker under Armand Aubigny’s strict rule, compared to the ownership of his father.
She greets her daughter and her daughter’s baby where they are reclining inside on a couch in soft muslin and lace. Upon seeing the child, Madame Valmondé says, “This is not the baby!” Désirée exclaims over how much the child has grown and changed in a few short weeks. She says that he cries so loudly that Armand can hear him as far away as La Blanche’s cabin. Madame Valmondé examines the child closely, and then, slowly, asks her daughter what her husband says about the child. Désirée reports that Armand is immensely proud and in great spirits. She shares with her mother that Armand has not punished any of his slaves, as he used to do, since their baby was born. He even laughed about a slave who feigned injury to avoid work. Marriage and fatherhood has softened Armand’s character. Désirée loves him regardless of his moods and his temper.
Weeks later, Désirée wakes up one morning with a sense of fear and foreboding, as if her happiness and peace will come to an end. Strange things begin to occur: neighbors visit with little explanation, the slaves seem aware of a secret, and Armand grows distant and angry. He does not meet Désirée’s eyes and stays away from home as much as he can. He returns to his brutal treatment of his slaves.
One afternoon, Désirée sits in her room watching as her baby is fanned by one of La Blanche’s boys, who is holding a peacock feather. Suddenly, Désirée looks from the boy to her child, and cries, “ah!” Her blood seems to freeze and she breaks into a cold sweat.
Désirée dismisses La Blanche’s boy from the room and gazes on her baby with fear. Armand enters the room and Désirée asks him to look at their child. “What does it mean?” She questions. Armand responds coldly, “it means that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.”
Désirée cries out that this is a lie and compares the skin of her hand to Armand’s, pointing out that it is even whiter than his. Armand retorts, “as white as La Blanche’s.”
In despair, Désirée writes to her mother explaining what has happened. Her mother tells her to come home to her because she loves her daughter, and to bring her child.
Désirée brings her mother’s letter to Armand’s study and presents it to him. He does not speak. She asks him if she should return to her home, and he tells her, yes, he wants her to go. Armand believes that God has unjustly punished him by giving him this child and he strikes out at his wife as if against God. He no longer loves his wife because she has brought shame into his house and to his name.
Désirée leaves, hoping that Armand will ask her to stay. She says, “good-bye, Armand,” but he does not respond. Désirée finds her baby with the nurse Zandrine. She walks outside holding her child. It is October, and the slaves are harvesting cotton. Désirée walks in the thin clothes and slippers she has on across an empty field. She disappears into the bayou and is not seen again.
A few weeks later, Armand builds a bonfire to burn Désirée’s possessions at L’Abri. He commands a dozen of his slaves who do the work of moving Désirée’s belongings into the fire. Armand orders burned the fine clothes, the bonnets and gloves, the various gifts he had purchased for Désirée. He is about to add Désirée’s love letters to him into the bonfire when he notes a letter from his mother to his father that was in the back of the same drawer. The letter thanks God for her husband’s love and for her son’s ignorance: he will never know that she, his mother, is one of the members of the race “cursed with the brand of slavery.”