Set in Louisiana in the mid-nineteenth century on two white-owned plantations some time before the Civil War, the story explores the psychological impacts of slavery and racial inequality. The violence and physical abuse that was so much a part of slavery exist only on the fringes of the story, implied in Armand’s “strict” treatment of his slaves and his ambiguous but likely sexual relationship with La Blanche, which makes sense given that all of the major characters of the story are the owners of the plantations. Put another way, the story explores the way that racism shapes and distorts the psychology and lives of the white slave owners who control and benefit from it.
The story shows several examples of how white perceptions of black inferiority, and in fact even how internalized black perceptions of black inferiority, lead to race being a taboo subject that causes characters to act in morally corrupt ways and to feel guilt, shame, and fear about their actions and identities. Without racial prejudice and the shame it generates, the story’s tragedy would never have unfolded. Madame Aubigny would not have felt the need to hide the truth of her own background. Armand would not have turned against Désirée and their baby when their son’s appearance identified him as a mixed-race child. Madame Valmondé would not have kept the reality of the child’s background from Désirée despite recognizing the truth herself. And Désirée, once she realized the significance of her child’s features and was accused by Armand of being part-black herself, would not have responded with such overwhelming shame that she walked into the bayou with her baby, killing herself and the child.
But the story pushes further in its condemnation of racism, by showing how the racism of its white characters causes them to see a person’s race as more important than that person’s self. Because, fundamentally, other than the fact that the child of Désirée and Armand reveals that it has a racial heritage that is both black and white, nothing else has changed. Désirée is still the same woman with whom Armand fell in love and who brightened his life, her baby is the same baby she adored, and she is still the daughter of her loving parents. And yet the mere fact of her racial history causes Armand to reject her and the baby, to cease to see her as the woman he loves and instead to see her as simply black and therefore beneath him. And for Désirée, essentially, to reject herself and her baby out of shame. The twist ending of the story makes obvious the idiocy and tragedy of this way of seeing the world, with racial background as its most important feature, since it becomes evident that one’s racial background isn’t obvious at all, and thus nothing to base assessments of oneself or of others.
Slavery and Racism ThemeTracker
Slavery and Racism Quotes in Désirée’s Baby
When she reached L’Abri she shuddered at the first sight of it, as she always did. It was a sad looking place….The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall.
Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.
“This is not the baby!” she exclaimed, in startled tones.
“…he hasn’t punished one of them—not one of them—since baby is born. Even Négrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg that he might rest from work—he only laughed, and said Négrillon was a great scamp. Oh, mamma, I’m so happy; it frightens me.”
Marriage, and later the birth of his son had softened Armand Aubigny’s imperious and exacting nature greatly. This was what made the gentle Désirée so happy, for she loved him desperately. When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God.
Then a strange, an awful change in her husband’s manner, which she dared not ask him to explain. When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes, from which the old love-light seemed to have gone out. He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse. And the very spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves. Désirée was miserable enough to die.
One of La Blanche’s little quadroon boys—half naked too— stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers. Désirée’s eyes had been fixed absently and sadly upon the baby, while she was striving to penetrate the threatening mist that she felt closing about her. She looked from her child to the boy who stood beside him, and back again; over and over. “Ah!” It was a cry that she could not help; which she was not conscious of having uttered. The blood turned like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face.
"Armand,” she panted once more, clutching his arm, “look at our child. What does it mean? tell me.”
He coldly but gently loosened her fingers from about his arm and thrust the hand away from him. “Tell me what it means!” she cried despairingly.
“It means,” he answered lightly, “that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.”
“It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,” seizing his wrist. “Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand,” she laughed hysterically.
“As white as La Blanche’s,” he returned cruelly; and went away leaving her alone with their child.
“My mother, they tell me I am not white. Armand has told me I am not white. For God’s sake tell them it is not true. You must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live.”
He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul. Moreover he no longer loved her, because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name.
In the center of the smoothly swept back yard was a great bonfire. Armand Aubigny sat in the wide hallway that commanded a view of the spectacle; and it was he who dealt out to a half dozen negroes the material which kept this fire ablaze. A graceful cradle of willow, with all its dainty furbishings, was laid upon the pyre, which had already been fed with the richness of a priceless layette. Then there were silk gowns, and velvet and satin ones added to these; laces, too, and embroideries; bonnets and gloves; for the corbeille had been of rare quality.
“But, above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”