“Désirée’s Baby” is Kate Chopin’s short story, set before the American Civil War, about a baby and a racial crisis between a husband and wife. For over half a century, it has been one of Chopin’s most popular stories.
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Time and place
When the story was written and published
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Questions and answers
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Articles and book chapters about the story
Books that discuss Kate Chopin’s short stories
- Armand Aubigny: owner of L’Abri
- Désirée: foundling, wife of Armand
- Madame Valmont: woman who raised Désirée
- Sandrine: servant at L’Abri
- La Blanche: slave
The story takes place in Louisiana before the American Civil War. It is one of the few stories Kate Chopin sets before the war.
As we explain in the questions and answers below, 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.” Other readers find different subjects and themes in the story.
You can read about finding themes in Kate Chopin’s stories and novels on the Themes page of this site.
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.
“The antidote to the poison of racial abstraction that destroys Désirée, the baby, and Armand is love, a deeply personal relationship which denies the dehumanizing and impersonal categorization of people into racial groups.” Robert D. Arner
“The reader must come to see the one indisputable fact—Désirée’s total powerlessness—the result of the life-and-death power of the husband in her society.” Anna Shannon Elfenbein
Evidence in the story shows that Armand Aubigny knows about his racial heritage. He has been aware all along of what the letter at the end of the story says. He has been “passing,” that is, presenting himself as white. Margaret D. Bauer
“Human situations can never be as clear as ‘black’ and ‘white.’” That’s one of Kate Chopin’s major themes. In her fiction, she confronts the “bleak fact” that life is uncertain, unsettled, full of “tenuous stabilities.” Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Thomas Bonner, Jr. recalls first reading “Désirée’s Baby” as a high-school student in 1956 on a New Orleans streetcar, at a time when your seat was designated by your skin color, when a sign directed white people to the front of the streetcar and African Americans to the back: “I felt embarrassment at what I had read—feeling that everyone about me knew that I had experienced something forbidden. When I looked up, I observed that many people in front of the sign were darker than many of those behind it.”
“Désirée is disruptive, not because she produces flaws in the signifying system but because she reveals flaws that were already there. . . . Chopin presents these three reasons—unconsciousness, negativeness, and lack of solidarity—to help explain why Désirée does reveal her society’s lack of knowledge but fails to change its ideological values, much less its actual power hierarchies.” Ellen Peel
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?
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: Is it possible that Désirée and her baby did not die in the bayou, that they continued on to her family’s plantation?
A: In most works of fiction, the answer to such a question depends upon what the author tells us. We have only Kate Chopin’s words near the end of the story to go on: Désirée “did not take the broad, beaten road which led to the far-off plantation of Valmondé. She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds. She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.”
There is nothing here to suggest that Désirée and her baby survive.
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: Is Armand’s father dead?
Q: I am trying to figure out why Armand married Désirée. We have to assume it is more than impulse, but if he really loved her, he most likely would not have turned her out.
A: If we were looking at a real-life person, we could talk with Armand, with his family and friends, or with others who know him, seeking evidence to better explain why he married Désirée.
But this is fiction. The only evidence we can gather to understand what’s motivating Armand is what Kate Chopin gives us. Armand and Désirée do not appear again in anything else Chopin wrote, so all we have to work with is the words in this story.
Désirée was “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,” Chopin says. Armand “had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. . . . The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.” Nothing Désirée’s guardian warned Armand about could change his mind. Apparently he married Désirée because she was “beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,” and when he saw her one day, he fell in love with her.
But he has, it seems, a cruel character. In dealing with his slaves, Chopin tells us, his “rule was a strict one,” unlike that of his father. And Désirée says that “he has n’t punished one of [the slaves]—not one of them—since baby is born,” which means that he routinely does punish them.
As for why he rejects Désirée when he discovers his child is black, you might keep in mind Armand’s character and remember that this story takes place in the American South in the distant past, before the Civil War.
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: 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. Is this the first time he is learning that his mother was black? Most scholars assume it is, but Margaret D. Bauer argues that he has known about his racial makeup all along, that he has been “passing,” presenting himself as white. You may want to read her article.
Q: Would it be accurate to say that Désirée and the baby are victims of racism?
A: Yes. Readers usually 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.” It may, however, be worth noting that some readers understand racism as damaging both those who are judged (Désirée and the baby) and those who are judging (Armand). So you might argue that racism victimizes everybody in the story, although not, of course, with equivalent consequences.
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 Désirée, ‘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: Who are the neighbors who visit L’Abri? I am thinking about this sentence: “It had only been a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks; unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming.”
A: Chopin scholar Thomas Bonner Jr. writes: Social life on Southern plantations was similar to that among the country estates in England. The considerable distances among the plantations generally meant that visits involved stays for several days, even weeks. In areas near rivers the plantations tended to be closer to one another, like those along the Cane River in Louisiana, but even so these visits were most often planned around birthdays and holidays. The plantation class included extended family and friends. It seems obvious that Armand had consulted his “peers” about “the disquiet” at home regarding features of the child and that his friends had come to assist in ascertaining the racial implications of his daughter’s features. These visits were made outside the ordinary calendar of visits and likely arranged through correspondence.
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 C. 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. . . .
Thomas Bonner, Jr.: 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.
For students and scholars
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.
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.
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.
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.