I have frequently worked on Désirée's Baby, the
celebrated short-story by Kate Chopin, and I was recently surprised not
to find anything about it on the Net. Just a few things about Kate Chopin
herself, about her works in general or The Awakening.
A plan for the commentary on Désirée's
So, as I had a few notes ready in my computer I tought I might as well
do something with them.
The narrative points of view
The growing importance of the
race issue throughout the story
Old Monsieur Aubigny
The Deep South in Désirée's
So, here is a possible plan for the study of
the short story, but there are many others.
The story being incredibly rich, it can be studied
from many different angles.
Plan for the commentary on
1°) The narrative techniques.
The use of French words and the local color genre.
b) The narrative points of view.
c) The fall and its preparation :
2°) The characters.
- The ominous character of l'Abri.
- The clues indicating the baby is black.
- The clues making it possible for Armand to be black.
a) Armand's racism and how it can be explained.
3°) The background of the story.
b) Old Monsieur Aubigny
c) Madame Valmondé's generosity.
d) Désirée herself.
a) The luxury of the way of life.
b) What we learn about slavery.
Conclusion : The short story enhances the cruelty and stupidity
Here are now some elements of this plan.
As some were meant to be essays in their own right,
there might be a few repetitions.
THE NARRATIVE POINTS
The short story falls into three parts, and each part is seen
through a different point of view. First we see things through Mme Valmondé's
eyes. We enter her stream of consciousness as she remembers how Desirée
was found, how Armand Aubigny fell in love with her and the conditions
of the wedding. It is through her sympathetic eyes that we see l'Abri and
the baby for the first time. We can share her joy at Désirée's
happiness as well as her apprehension concerning the baby.
He is the young man Désirée has fallen in love with. We se
him through Mme Valmondé's eyes at the beginning of the story :
passionate, he has fallen in love "as if stuck by a pistol shot", but exacting,
imperious, cruel towards his Negroes. There is something mysterious about
his childhood. He has lived in Paris for the first eight years of his life,
his mother having refused to come and live in America. It is only after
her death that he and his benevolent father came back to Louisiana. Happiness
has transformed him, and Désirée can rejoice in the fact
that "he hasn' t punished one of them” since the birth of his child. This
enables us to imagine the whippings, the everyday beatings his slaves had
Then, from line 66 to line 141, it is through Désirée's
eyes that we live her tragedy. As she becomes the victim of a stupid,
horrible racism we can thus share her anxiety, her fear and her pain.
At last, from line 142 to the end we can observe a curious
scene enacted at l'Abri. This time, the point of view is objective, and
if our attention focuses on Armand, we do not share his feelings, we can
only imagine them. Thus as we remain at a distance, as we can't identify
with him, we are in a position to judge his cruel and stupid racism.
Then, as it becomes apparent that his baby has black origins,
his attitude changes. "The old love light " vanishes from his eyes,
"the very spirit of Satan" takes hold of him in his dealings with the slaves."
In fact his cruelty has all come back to the surface and of course since
Désirée's origins are unknown he deduces from the fact that
the baby is not white, that Désirée is not white. This is
for him a sufficient reason to reject her, to deny all the love he had
felt for her. He feels hurt, his honor has been tarnished, he feels cheated
even though Monsieur Valmondé had "wanted things well considered"
before the wedding. He should have known there was a risk of such a surprise
in marrying Désirée. But just as his passion had blinded
him then, it blinds him again in his hate for "the race cursed with the
brand of slavery".
We can be quite sure he hasn't felt any remorse after the young
woman's death. We can see him at the end of the story methodically burning
all the priceless elements of the "corbeille", as if he wanted to purify
himself from his momentary association with a woman who was not white.
We can then only imagine his torment at the discovery of
the truth. We can suppose that this hate which has driven Désirée
to suicide will turn against himself.
But we can also wonder how such a violently strong form of racism
can have developed in a man whose own mother was probably a quadroon. We
must remember that he was eight when she died, that he probably didn’t
remember her very well and that he was brought up in France where the race
issue at that time was much less acute. Then why had he become that racist?
His father having been a benevolent and easy-going man, it doesn't seem
logical. So, we can suppose that, unconsciously, he more or less remembers
his own personal link with blackness and tries, all the more strongly as
it is unconscious, to deny it, to erase it from his life. The harder he
is with his Negroes, the more he feels different from them.
Kate Chopin wrote her stories just before Freud published his
most famous books about the unconscious. But we can explain Armand's behaviour
by referring to the unconscious today. Such attitudes did exist in a region
which was plagued with a racism so strong that for the majority of
the white people, to have a drop of black blood was considered the worst
of things. Armand is certainly a true to life character, an unfortunately
common type at the time.
At the beginning of "Désirée's baby", race doesn't
seem to be an issue at all. It just seems to be a love story, race hardly
appearing in the background. Coton Maïs is the only reference to slavery
in Mme Valmondé's thoughts when she thinks of Désirée
and of her own plantation.
THE GROWING IMPORTANCE
OF THE RACE ISSUE THROUGHOUT THE STORY.
But when she arrives at l'Abri, she thinks of the Negroes, regretting
the benevolent days of the old master. And once inside the house, the race
issue becomes more important. The nurse, Zandrine, is a yellow woman. We
hear about La Blanche and Négrillon who "wanted to rest from work".
Désirée tells us about Armand's softened manner, which lets
us imagine his cruel rule before he had the baby.
Then little by little, we are given clues concerning the baby, clues
which may indicate that the baby is not white. And then the whole atmosphere
of the short story changes. Désirée's happiness is first
threatened and then shattered. We then understand that the race issue is
not an element in the background of the story but its main topic indeed.
Finally, when we come to the fall, to the final revelation we can realize
that in fact, the race issue was there from the start, which is why
Monsieur Aubigny had to go and hide his love in Paris. Kate Chopin manages
to convey her refusal of racism to us, to show us how stupid, absurd, dangerous
it is to think one race is superior to the other.
In the first parT of "Desirée's Baby", we do not learn many things
about Armand's father, but what we learn is essential. We understand that
the Aubignys were "one of the oldest and proudest families in Louisiana".
Then a young man, Monsieur Aubigny left his plantation, "l'Abri", for a
trip to France. There, he met a French woman, fell madly in love with her,
married her, had a son with her (Armand) and did not come back to Louisiana
before her death. When he came back, Armand was eight years old.
Life on the plantation then was pleasant for his Negroes, because even
if "l'Abri" didn't know "the gentle presence of a mistress", Monsieur Aubigny's
benevolent nature allowed them to be happy.
It is only at the end of the short-story, when we read its very last
word, "slavery", that we understand that in fact, Monsieur Aubigny had
married not a French woman but one of his slaves and had lived away from
Louisiana with her because such a union was totally impossible, unheard
of at the time in the Deep South.
In "Désirée's Baby", Kate Chopin tells us a very moving
story which first seems to be a romantic love story, but whose main topic
reveals itself to be slavery and racism. The narrative is set in Louisiana,
and indeed we are going to see that it could not have been otherwise, that
the race issue could not be absent from the Deep South, however beautiful
this region of the U.S.A might have been.
THE DEEP SOUTH IN
We will first see how Kate Chopin evokes this beautiful setting,
and then we will see how the race issue pervades it.
We are indeed in the Deep South with its hot and humid climate.
The afternoons are so hot that Désirée cannot but stay lying
on her couch in her "peignoir ". The baby has to be fanned and the bayou,
so typical of the area of New Orleans, is close by.
From the beginning of the short-story, we know that we are in
the world of the cotton plantations. Valmondé has an imposing gate
with two great stone pillars, l'Abri is surrounded by "big solemn oaks",
and we can imagine a park too. It is encircled by a wide gallery
and everything about it suggests wealth and an easy way of life for the
But this easy way of life of the white people, to which the Southerners
were so attached in the Deep South only meant suffering and misery for
their slaves of whose labor they lived.
Slavery is indeed present in the story: first it is just evoked
by the names of a certain number of slaves "Cotton Maïs", "La Blanche,
"Zandrine", "Negrillon". Names which are not really names but rather nicknames
and which show us the total lack of respect of the masters for their slaves.
They were not even entitled to a real name! But little by little, slavery
takes a greater place in the story. We are presented with the character
of Zandrine, a mulatto and we can reflect on the fact that mulattos and
quadroons were generally given better jobs than the others. The relative
whiteness of their skin did not protect them from being slaves but they
could be house-servants and usually didn't have to work in the fields.
Then we can understand the intensity of racism in the Deep South.
Armand is good to the black people on his plantation only for a brief moment,
at the beginning of his marriage to Désirée. It is because
he is so happy that he can forget for a moment his resentment towards the
blacks. But when he is his natural self, he is hard and cruel. Racism is
so deeply rooted that Armand's mother has tried to hide from her son that
she had black origins, denying thus her real self. It is so intense that
a passionate love such as that of Armand for Désirée can
be turned into a sort of cold hatred which will lead the young woman to
Indeed, the Deep South at the time of slavery could seem a romantic
haven for the white, rich people who inhabited it. But it was certainly
a terrible place to live in for the slaves and Kate Chopin in "Désirée's
Baby" shows us that the racism of which the Southerners were responsible
could also destroy white people's happiness.
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