Désirée’s Baby

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Désirée’s Baby Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On a beautiful day in mid-nineteenth century Louisiana, Madame Valmondé drives to the neighboring plantation to visit her adopted daughter Désirée and her daughter’s new baby. She reflects that it seems but yesterday that her grown daughter was a baby herself. Her husband, Monsieur Valmondé, found the baby asleep in the shadow of the stone pillar at the gate of their plantation.
The historical setting of Chopin’s story develops the themes and the characters. The Valmondés, who are described as plantation owners, are established as wealthy and white. Their adoption of Désirée emphasizes their kindness, despite their economic prosperity.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Love and Blindness Theme Icon
When Monsieur Valmondé picked up the abandoned baby, she cried “dada!” Various neighbors speculated about her origins: did she crawl or walk to the base of the stone pillar herself? Did the party of Texans who had crossed the river near the planation that very day leave her behind? As Madame Valmondé grew attached to the child, she abandoned all concerns about the girl’s past, believing, instead, that she had been deposited at their gate by Providence because she and her husband were unable to have children of their own.
Her adoptive father finds Désirée in the shadow of the stone pillar. This shadow symbolizes the uncertainty of her origins. The pillar is also an indication of the wealth and property of the Valmondés, and Désirée’s appearance there introduces her into a world of privilege. Madame Valmondé’s attribution of the girl’s appearance to Providence introduces the theme of Fate into the story, while also suggesting that one’s interpretation also helps to determine one’s fate. Madame Valmondé could have responded to this abandoned baby of mysterious origin as a nuisance or curse rather than a blessing.
Themes
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Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon
The child, Désirée, grew up to be the pride and joy of the Valmondés. She became beautiful, kind, and loving. Eighteen years later, she was standing near the same stone pillar where she was found when Armand Aubigny rode by and fell in love with her at first sight. Like all Aubignys, young Armand fell in love dramatically. He had known Désirée for years—since he moved home from Paris at age eight after his French mother passed away—but at that moment he loved Désirée passionately, and would listen to no objections.
Désirée’s physical appearance mirrors her inner character: she is kind-hearted, although naïve, as the story reveals. Her appearance is what draws the attention of Armand, which reveals the extent of his love for her to be surface-level, as the story will demonstrate. His sudden and dramatic passion for Désirée reveals his expectation that he will get what he wants, as he always has.
Themes
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Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Monsieur Valmondé did not object, but he did try to caution Armand about Désirée’s unknown past. When reminded that the girl had no true family or family name, Armand didn’t care, for he could give her his name—one of the most respectable in Louisiana. He ordered fine clothes and gifts for her from Paris and the two were married.
Monsieur Valmondé’s caution foreshadows the concerns and questions that will be raised about Désirée’s unknown past. Armand appears not to care about his wife’s past, but does when problems arise. His gifts symbolize his wealth and his “purchase” of Désirée as a woman and wife.
Themes
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Love and Blindness Theme Icon
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Madame Valmondé has not seen her daughter or her baby in a month. She arrives at L’Abri and shivers, as she always does, at the shadowed appearance of the house. The house appears sad, for it has not had the gentle care of a mistress since Madame Aubigny died and was buried in Paris. Before that, Madame Aubigny had not wanted to move to Louisiana for she loved her homeland. The house has a steep roof and is overshadowed by large oak trees. Armand’s rule has been different than his father’s. Under the late Monsieur Aubigny’s indulgent leadership, the slaves had been comfortable and happy. Young Armand is strict.
Madame Valmondé’s visit brings the reader to L’Abri through the older woman’s observations and judgments of the place. These observations reveal the dark nature of the place through its dark appearance. Just as Désirée’s beauty suggest her inner nature, the appearance of the house mirrors the internal characteristics of Armand. Armand’s personality is established by comparing him, unfavorably, to his father. His father’s open-mindedness becomes key late in the story.
Themes
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Madame Valmondé greets her daughter inside the house where Désirée and her baby are resting on a couch, dressed in muslins and lace. A nurse sits by the window. Madame embraces her daughter and turns to the child, exclaiming, in French, as she sees him, “This is not the baby!” Désirée laughs delightedly, and responds that the baby is much changed. She points out how much he has grown, and that even his fingernails needed cutting that morning. She appeals to the nurse at the window, Zandrine, who did this task. Désirée says that the baby’s cry is very loud, so loud her husband heard him “as far away as La Blanche’s cabin.”
Désirée and her baby appear in the story with physical indications of wealth. Désirée is not working, but resting. Even maternal work is handed off to the waiting nurse, who is a slave. Madame Valmondé’s exclamation about the baby represents her recognition of that the baby’s features indicate it has a mixed racial heritage, but Désirée in her innocence thinks her mother is just exclaiming about how the child has grown. La Blanche never appears in the story and yet is an important figure. Here the reference to Armand being at La Blanche’s cabin implies that he has or had a sexual relationship with La Blanche, who is a slave and his “property.” Note how, in a sense, Désirée is also his “property” as a wife whom he “bought” with gifts and wealth, though of course slavery is even more pernicious and awful than the “traditional” gender norms of the time.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Madame Valmondé picks up the baby and carries him over to the light from the window where she examines him closely. She looks questioningly at Zandrine who is looking out the window. Slowly she says that the child has indeed grown, and then she asks her daughter what Armand says about the baby. Désirée’s expression is one of pure happiness. She exclaims that Armand is the proudest father in the area to have a baby boy as his heir. She reports that Armand says he would have loved a daughter as well, but she feels he’s only saying so to please her.
Madame Valmondé looks closely at the baby because she observes something that she chooses not to reveal to her daughter. Her silence is may be guided by shame about the truth or a desire to protect her daughter in her innocence. Désirée is oblivious and blissful. Her praise of Armand shows her love for him, as well as how emotionally dependent she is on her husband. Because he is proud and happy, she is happy.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Désirée continues, lowering her voice, and confides in her mother that Armand has not punished any of his slaves since the baby’s birth. She says that Négrillon, one of the slaves, pretended injury to avoid work and that Armand only laughed and called him a scamp. She confesses that she is frightened by her own happiness, as it is so extreme. Marriage and fatherhood has changed Armand. Armand is controlling and picky, but softened in his exacting ways. Désirée loves him, regardless. She trembles in fear when he is angry, but still loves him. And now that his moods have softened, she is incredibly happy.
The change in Armand that Désirée describes further reveals Armand’s natural character: he is cruel toward those within his power. His generosity of spirit, inspired by the joys of fatherhood, therefore is foreshadowed to be short-lived. Désirée’s love for Armand is unconditional: she loves him in any of his moods. Armand’s love for Désirée, on the other hand, is soon revealed to be entirely conditional.
Themes
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Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Time passes. One day, when the baby is three months old, Désirée wakes up in the morning with the feeling that her sense of peace will not last. She has noticed the suspicious moods of the slaves as well as the unusual visits from unexpected neighbors. Then Armand undergoes a dramatic change. He no longer looks directly at Désirée and he goes out of his way to avoid her. He returns to his cruel treatment of his slaves, and exceeds his earlier cruelties as if “the very spirit of Satan” has taken hold of him. Désirée is miserable.
Désirée senses the problem before she consciously acknowledges it. This speaks to the theme of Love and Blindness in the story. Because Désirée loves her son, it takes her longer than everyone else to acknowledge the truth. Armand does not confront her, but reverts to his cruel nature. This shows Armand’s immediate decision to blame his wife for their child’s appearance, as well as the way that racial issues were connected with such shame—because of the institution of slavery—that no one among the white plantation slave owners could even discuss it.
Themes
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Love and Blindness Theme Icon
One afternoon, Désirée is sitting in her room watching her baby who is asleep on her bed, which appears like an extravagant throne with its satin canopy. One of La Blanche’s boys is fanning the baby using peacock feathers. Désirée stares at her baby and then looks at La Blanche’s boy and then back again. Suddenly, she cries aloud, as if she could not help making a noise. Her blood seems to freeze and she breaks into a sweat. She tries to speak and cannot, but eventually speaks La Blanche’s boy’s name and points him to the door. He leaves quietly and obediently, and Désirée remains, staring at her baby with an expression of fright.
Désirée and her baby again appear in attitudes of extravagance and leisure. A slave boy does the work of fanning the baby. The irony of this moment—and the condemnation of the ridiculousness and tragedy of slavery—comes with Désirée’s realization that her child looks similar to a boy whose life will be one of slavery and not comfort (the similarity of the two boys also, again, suggests that Armand has had a sexual relationship with La Blanche and that this slave child might in fact be his son, and suggests that for Armand fatherhood is less important than race). The two boys, despite their similarities, are already playing their roles. Désirée’s reaction shows that she is afraid of having a child who appears black.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Armand enters the room, but does not acknowledge Désirée and begins looking through some papers on a table. Désirée calls his name in a voice that would have encouraged sympathy from any human, but Armand still ignores her. Désirée goes to him and grabs his arm, and asks him to look at their baby. “What does it means?” She asks. Armand responds, as he coldly removes her hand from his arm, that it means that the child is not white, and therefore she, Désirée, is not white.
Armand’s treatment of Désirée shows that he is ashamed, on the one hand, and no longer sees her as a person worthy of respect on the other. He does not lash out at her, but ignores her, as if she has lost her right to sympathy and care. Désirée’s beauty made him not care about her “mysterious past” when he thought that past was one of poor parents; but when he believes it is in fact a poverty of mixed racial heritage it becomes overwhelmingly important and shameful to him.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon
Désirée immediately senses all that this accusation means and leaps to deny it. She says that it is a lie, and points out her brown hair and gray eyes. She grabs Armand’s wrist and places her hand alongside his, pointing out that it is fair, and even whiter than his own. Armand responds bitterly, “as white as La Blanche’s,” and leaves the room.
Désirée, while the victim of Armand’s sexist assumption and unkind treatment, is equally ashamed of being grouped with the “lesser” black race. Her act of contrasting her skin color to Armand’s foreshadows the twist at the end of the short story. That Désirée and La Blanche are also equally “white” in color forwards the story’s critique of slavery and racism as nonsensical: La Blanche, the slave, is as white as her masters (and likely has had a sexual relationship with Armand just as Désirée has had), and yet because her racial heritage is known she is forced to be a slave. But as the story is showing, racial heritage in the South isn’t clear at all and so the foundation of slavery (to say nothing of the abhorrence of the practice) makes no sense.
Themes
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Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Désirée writes to her mother and tells her what has happened—that her husband has told her she is not white. She pleads with her mother to convince everyone that this is not true. She tells her mother that she will die because she cannot live with this much unhappiness. Madame Valmondé responds with a short letter that asks her daughter to come home to Valmondé. She tells her daughter to come back to the mother that loves her and to bring her baby.
Désirée is the same person she always was, but the idea that she might have black heritage fills her with shame. She wants “everyone” to know she cannot possibly be black. Madame Valmondé’s response can provide no such assurance—she doesn’t know Désirée’s past. But her response also shows a true love missing in the other characters of the story: she accepts her daughter regardless of her lineage.
Themes
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Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Désirée takes the letter from her mother into Armand’s study and presents it to him. Armand silently reads the letter and does not speak. Désirée asks him, “Shall I go, Armand?” Her voice is sharp with suspense and pain. Armand tells her to go, and when she asks again if he wants her to go, he responds that he does. Armand believes that God has given him an unfair punishment in the form of his child and he turns his anger on his wife. He no longer loves his wife because he sees her as the source of the shame brought on him and his family name.
Désirée confronts Armand with the letter because she hopes that he will tell her to stay and show as much love and support as her mother has shown. Armand’s willingness to blame God, a higher power, indicates that he never considers the possibility of his responsibility, either for the child’s appearance or his cruel actions. His love for Désirée is conditional because it can be wiped away by shame. He wanted her for what she brought him, not for who she is.
Themes
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Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon
Désirée turns away and leaves, hoping at each moment that Armand will ask her to stay. She says good-bye, but Armand does not answer. He considers his silence another blow against his shameful fate. Désirée retrieves her baby from Zandrine, and, without an explanation, she takes the child and walks outside. It is October and the slaves are harvesting cotton in the fields. Désirée is wearing a thin white dress and slippers. Her hair is exposed and gleams in the sun. She does not walk down the road that leads toward Valmondé, but instead cuts across a field full of sharp stubble that destroys her slippers and her dress. She disappears into the bayou with her baby and is never seen again.
Armand wants to strike out against what he sees as his cruel “fate “of having a black child, and he does this by striking out at his wife. Yet just as Madame Valmondé interpreted her “fate” of finding Désirée as a blessing, Armand’s “fate” is defined by his acceptance of racist and sexist ideas. Désirée is exactly the same person she was before—she has done absolutely nothing wrong or cruel. So Armand seals his own fate as cruel by refusing to see beyond race. Meanwhile, Désirée’s shame at being black is so great, meanwhile, that she chooses to throw away her and her child’s life rather than return to her loving mother.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon
A few weeks later, a large bonfire is built in the backyard of L’Abri. Armand sits in the back hallway and gives instructions to a dozen slaves who tend and feed the bonfire. Armand directs a baby’s cradle be added to the fire, and fine clothes; gowns of silk, velvet, and satin; laces; embroideries; bonnets and gloves follow this. These are all the expensive gifts Armand bought for Désirée upon their engagement.
The bonfire symbolizes Armand’s wealth as well as the intersection of classism, racism, and sexism. Armand can afford to destroy Désirée’s possessions, which are the marks of feminine beauty. He himself doesn’t do this work, but directs his slaves to do it. Both the gifts he gave Désirée and the idea that he can eliminate her from his life by burning them indicate how Armand always viewed Désirée as a possession rather than as a person.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon
The last thing Armand wants to add to the bonfire is a package of letters from Désirée to himself, written during their engagement. He removed the letters from a drawer and with them a letter that was not of the same set. He notices this letter, one written from his mother to his father. He reads the letter: in it, Madame Aubigny thanks God for her husband’s love, and tells Monsieur Aubigny how grateful she is that her son, Armand, will never known that his mother, who truly loves him, is one of the “race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”
The twist ending! Armand is part of the race that he has treated as inferior; in rejecting his son and Désirée it was really himself he was rejecting. Armand’s behavior stands in stark contrast to that of his father, who loved his mother regardless of her race. And yet it was his parent’s choice to never reveals Armand’s past to him—to protect him from that “shame”—that led him to accept racist beliefs and destroy Désirée’s and his son’s life. Put another way: in trying to protect Armand from that curse, his parent’s ended up forcing him to experience it dead on. The story reveals the “curse” of slavery to not solely be a curse for the slaves (though of course it is that) but to be a curse upon everyone, a curse upon the land.
Themes
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Intersection of Classism, Sexism, and Racism  Theme Icon
Love and Blindness Theme Icon
Irony, Misjudgments, and Fate Theme Icon