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16 April 2014
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Kate Chopin "Désirée's Baby"

From the short story:

"'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.'"

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Reading Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" online and in print
"Désirée's Baby" characters
"Désirée's Baby" time and place
"Désirée's Baby" themes
When "Désirée's Baby" was written and published
Questions and answers about "Désirée's Baby"
Accurate texts of "Désirée's Baby"
New items: Articles and book chapters about "Désirée's Baby"
Selected books that discuss Kate Chopin's short stories

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Reading Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" online and in print

You can read the story in this free printable and searchable PDF file, although if you're citing a passage for research purposes, you should check citations for accuracy against one of these definitive printed texts.

"Désirée's Baby" characters

  • Armand Aubigny, owner of L'Abri
  • Désirée, a foundling, wife of Armand
  • Madame Valmondé, the woman who raised Désirée
  • Zandrine, a servant at L'Abri
  • La Blanche, a slave

"Désirée's Baby" time and place

The story takes place in Louisiana before the American Civil War. It is one of the few stories Kate Chopin sets before the war.

"Désirée's Baby" themes

You can read about finding themes in Kate Chopin's stories and novels on the Themes page of this site.

When Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" was written and published

The story was written on November 24, 1892, and published in Vogue on January 14, 1893, the first of nineteen Kate Chopin stories that Vogue published. It was reprinted in Chopin's collection of stories Bayou Folk in 1894.

You can find complete composition dates and publication dates for Chopin's works on pages 1003 to 1032 of The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, edited by Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969, 2006).

Questions and answers about "Désirée's Baby"

Q: This is an amazing story. Do other people know about it?

A: Yes. It's been reprinted countless times since 1929 and was Chopin's best-known work before The Awakening was revived in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1936, critic Arthur Hobson Quinn called it "one of the greatest short stories in the language," and many readers over the decades have shared his opinion.

Q: I was totally unprepared for the ending. It stunned me! Is this typical of Kate Chopin?

A: Chopin handles closings as well as any writer. "The Storm," "The Story of an Hour," "Fedora," and "A Respectable Woman," among other short stories, also have brilliant last sentences.

Q: Should I have seen that ending coming?

A: There are some suggestions that point to it. The story notes in paragraph six that Armand Aubigny's mother was French. She and her "easy-going and indulgent" husband raised Armand in Paris, where an interracial marriage was, it seems, socially possible in the first half of the nineteenth century, in part because slavery as it was known in rural Louisiana did not exist in mainland France. And the description of L'Abri, Armand's house, in the sixth paragraph carries overtones of trouble to come.

Q: If Armand was eight when his mother died why doesn't he remember her?

A: Perhaps he does remember her. If by your question you mean why doesn't he remember his mother as having dark skin, it may be that she had light skin.

Q: Are there clues in the story to show Armand might have known he was of African American descent?

A: He is of mixed race, but he is not African American, if by that you mean someone who is a descendant of Africans brought to America as slaves. His mother was French. So he is American (on his father's side) and French (on his mother's side), although his mother evidently had roots in Africa. The question of what he knows about his race is not dealt with in the story. Is this the first time he is seeing that letter? The story does not tell us, so we cannot know.

Q: Why is Armand burning things at the end of the story?

A: Apparently he is trying to destroy memories of his wife and child to remove what he thinks of as the taint of their race.

Q: Would it be accurate to say that Désirée and the baby are victims of racism?

A: Readers often see this as a story about racism--defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." But many readers understand that racism damages both those who are judged and those who are judging. You might argue that racism victimizes everybody in the story, although not, of course, with equivalent consequences.

Q: Is Armand's father dead?

A: Yes.

Q: I'm wondering if you might offer some insight into the importance of La Blanche in the story. The fact that Armand had been at the cabin of La Blanche and the comment by Armand that Désirée's hands were the color of La Blanche's led me to question the relationship between Armand and La Blanche.

A: The story is set before the Civil War, at a time when a white slave owner often considered that because his female slaves were his property, he had a right to have sex with them. Kate Chopin would certainly have been aware of that.

Because of this passage in the story--"'And the way he cries,' went on Desiree, 'is deafening. Armand heard him the other day as far away as La Blanche's cabin'"--you might ask why Armand is around La Blanche's cabin.

And you might consider this passage:

"She [Désirée] sat in her room, one hot afternoon, in her peignoir, listlessly drawing through her fingers the strands of her long, silky brown hair that hung about her shoulders. The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half-canopy. 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."

We don't know what Désirée is thinking, but you might wonder if she sees a resemblance between her own baby and La Blanche's little boy, and--if that's what she sees--if it suggests to her that Armand had been having sex with La Blanche before their marriage. And if you want to look at this long passage in the context of the shorter one, you might want to ask if Désirée wonders if her husband continues to have sex with La Blanche.

Q: How did Kate Chopin know about slavery? Did she grow up with slaves in the house?

A: Yes. Her family in St. Louis, like many families in the city, held slaves in the 1850s.

Q: My literature anthology says that Kate Chopin's mother was Creole. Does that mean that Chopin herself has African roots?

A: No. In American English, the word "Creole" (the noun form of the word) carries several different meanings. For Kate Chopin, the following definition applies (it's from the Merriam Webster online dictionary): "a white person descended from early French or Spanish settlers of the United States Gulf states and preserving their speech and culture."

Q: I was wondering about the use of the expression "yellow nurse" in this story. Does the word "yellow" here mean "Asian"? When this story was written, would that expression have been considered offensive, as it is today?

A: No, the word ""yellow" does not refer to an Asian person. And it would probably not have been offensive in Kate Chopin's time, as it is today.

Three Chopin scholars discuss the expression:

Emily Toth: I would read it as "high yellow"--i. e., a light skinned black person, maybe octoroon or quadroon. The term "high yellow" is pretty old, so I assume it existed in Chopin's day. Also, house servants--those who did child care--were usually light-skinned, and were most likely the children of the master by his slaves. (Mary Boykin Chesnut writes about that in her diary.) The term wasn't considered offensive, just descriptive, when I taught at a historically black college in the 1960s–1970s, but I think Tom [Bonner] would be the most knowledgeable about this. "Mulatto" is considered offensive now.

Barbara Ewell: My sense is that this would have been simply a descriptive term, that white folks (and perhaps most blacks) would not have thought to be offensive, especially in this context. In fact, I think that was true well into the twentieth century. . . .

Tom Bonner: The term as you both note refers to a very light skinned black person. Historically, it was used, as Barbara notes, without rancor more often by whites and blacks. The tone sometimes suggested an "uppity" attitude when used by whites and darker blacks, but the text here does not suggest this. Mulatto is like Negro in that it is now archaic, but, as Emily indicated, it is currently "offensive" as well.

Q: A friend of mine has written a sequel to "Désirée Baby" and she is considering publishing it. Would doing that violate any of Ms. Chopin's copyrights or the rights of any organization that may hold copyrights on Ms. Chopin's work? Since copyrights can be a tricky thing I thought that I would contact you and ask for your advice and help on this matter.

A: "Désirée's Baby" and almost all the rest of Kate Chopin's works, including The Awakening, are in the public domain. Only a few stories--those first discovered and published in the 1960s--are not. The best known of the still-copyrighted works is "The Storm," which is controlled by the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge.

So your friend is free to do as she wishes with "Désirée's Baby" and almost anything else Chopin wrote except "The Storm" and a few other stories. If you're concerned about a different Chopin work, get back to us and we'll be happy to check on its status.

You can read more about copyright protection provided by the laws of the United States.

You can read more questions and answers about Kate Chopin and her work, and you can email us your questions.

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For students and scholars

Accurate texts of "Désirée's Baby"

The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited by Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969, 2006.

Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie. Edited by Bernard Koloski. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories. Edited by Sandra Gilbert. New York: Library of America, 2002.

Articles and book chapters about "Désirée's Baby"

Some of the articles listed here may be available on line through university or public libraries.

Bonner, Jr., Thomas. "New Orleans and Its Writers: Burdens of Place." Mississippi Quarterly 63. 1–2 (2010): 95–209.

Mayer, Gary H. "A Matter of Behavior: A Semantic Analysis of Five Kate Chopin Stories." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 67.1 (2010): 94–104.

Pegues, Dagmar. "Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin's Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereotype." Southern Literary Journal 43.1 (2010): 1–22.

Shen, Dan. "Implied Author, overall Consideration, and Subtext of 'Désirée's Baby'." Poetics Today 31.2 (2010): 285–311.

Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. "Reckoning with Race in The Awakening." Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival. Ed. Bernard Koloski. Louisiana State UP, 2009. 173–183.

Perrin-Chenour, Marie-Claude. "'Désirée's Baby', de Kate Chopin ou
l'envers de l'histoire." [in French] Nouvelles du Sud: Hearing Voices, Reading Stories. Paris, France: École Polytechnique, 2007. 105–111.

Gibert, Teresa. “Textual, Contextual and Critical Surprises in ‘Désirée’s Baby.’” Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate 14 (2004-05): 38–67.

-------. "The Role of Implicatures in Kate Chopin's Louisiana Short Stories." Journal of the Short Story in English 40 (2003): 69–84.

Skredsvig, Kari Meyers. "Mapping Gender: Feminist Cartographies in Kate Chopin's 'Regionalist' Stories." Revista de Filología y Lingüística de la Universidad de Costa Rica 29 (2003): 85–101.

Fitz, Brewster E. "Kate Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby': Emancipating the Readers." Short Story 8 (2000): 78–91.

Foster, Derek W., and Kris LeJeune. "'Stand by Your Man ...': Désirée Valmondé and Feminist Standpoint Theory in Kate Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby.' " Southern Studies 8 (1997): 91–97.

Arner, Robert D. "Pride and Prejudice: Kate Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby'." Critical Essays on Kate Chopin Ed. Alice Hall Petry. G. K. Hall, 1996. 139–146.

Bauer, Margaret D. "Armand Aubigny, Still Passing After all these Years: The Narrative Voice and Historical Context of 'Désirée's Baby.' " Critical Essays on Kate Chopin Ed. Alice Hall Petry. G. K. Hall, 1996. 161–83.

Bauer, Margaret D. "Armand Aubigny, Still Passing after All These Years: The Narrative Voice and Historical Context of 'Désirée's Baby.' " Critical Essays on Kate Chopin. New York: Hall, 1996. 161–83.

Koloski, Bernard. "The Anthologized Chopin: Kate Chopin's Short Stories in Yesterday's and Today's Anthologies." Louisiana Literature 11 (1994): 18–30.

Lundie, Catherine. "Doubly Dispossessed: Kate Chopin's Women of Color." Louisiana Literature 11.1 (1994): 126–44.

Peel, Ellen. "Semiotic Subversion in 'Désirée's Baby.' " Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography Eds. Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell. Louisiana State UP, 1992. 57–73.

Foy, Roslyn Reso. "Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby.' " Explicator 49.4 (1991): 222–23.

Erickson, Jon. "Fairytale Features in Kate Chopin's 'Désirée's Baby': A Case Study in Genre Cross-Reference." Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction Eds. Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte. Königshausen & Neumann, 1990. 57–67.

Toth, Emily. "Kate Chopin and Literary Convention: 'Désirée's Baby.' " Southern Studies 20.2 (1981): 201–8.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: 'Desiree's Baby.' " Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 123–33.

Selected books that discuss Chopin's short stories

Callahan, Cynthia. Kin of Another Kind: Transracial Adoption in American Literature. U of Michigan P, 2010.

Koloski, Bernard, ed. Awakenings: The Story of the Kate Chopin Revival Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.

Beer, Janet. The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2008.

For scholars: We seek to make our listings of Chopin scholarship accurate and up to date. If you find a mistake, an omission, or a misplacement, would you tell us? If a listed article is available on the web, would you send us the link? Contact us.

Ostman, Heather. Kate Chopin in the Twenty-First Century: New Critical Essays Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2008.

Arima, Hiroko. Beyond and Alone!: The Theme of Isolation in Selected Short Fiction of Kate Chopin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2006.

Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Stein, Allen F. Women and Autonomy in Kate Chopin's Short Fiction New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

Walker, Nancy A. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001.

Koloski, Bernard. "Introduction" Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie by Kate Chopin New York: Penguin, 1999.

Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.

Koloski, Bernard. Kate Chopin: A Study of the Short Fiction New York: Twayne, 1996.

Petry, Alice Hall (ed.), Critical Essays on Kate Chopin New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Boren, Lynda S. and Sara deSaussure Davis (eds.), Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Perspectives on KateChopin: Proceedings from the Kate Chopin International Conference, April 6, 7, 8, 1989 Natchitoches, LA: Northwestern State UP, 1992.

Toth, Emily. "Introduction" A Vocation and a Voice New York: Penguin, 1991.

Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Elfenbein , Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1989.

Taylor, Helen. Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

Bonner, Thomas Jr., The Kate Chopin Companion New York: Greenwood, 1988.

Bloom, Harold (ed.), Kate Chopin New York: Chelsea, 1987.

Ewell, Barbara C. Kate Chopin New York: Ungar, 1986.

Skaggs, Peggy. Kate Chopin Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey New York: Appleton-Century, 1936.

Rankin, Daniel, Kate Chopin and Her Creole Stories Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1932.

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1899 Novel The original cover of Kate Chopin's famous novel, published in 1899.