By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Désirée’s Baby’, originally known by the longer title ‘The Father of Désirée’s Baby’, is an 1893 short story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-94). It is among Chopin’s most widely studied stories, partly because it deals with the subject of race as well as gender. The story tells of a woman who marries a plantation-owner; when she gives birth to their child, she is shocked to discover the baby is mixed-race.
Before we offer an analysis of Chopin’s story, you can read the story here (it takes around ten minutes to read); here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘Désirée’s Baby’: plot summary
Madame Valmondé drives to visit Désirée, her adopted daughter, who has recently married Armand Aubigny, who owns a Louisiana plantation. Désirée has recently given birth to a baby girl, and Madame Valmondé recollects how her husband had found the abandoned baby Désirée eighteen years earlier and the couple had adopted her as their own.
Armand Aubigny had recently started to notice Désirée blossoming into womanhood and fallen in love with her, and the couple had married. Aubigny has been living in Louisiana since coming to the United States from Paris at the age of eight, after his mother had died. He did not care about Désirée’s past as an orphan, and wanted to marry her regardless.
As Madame Valmondé approaches L’Abri, the name of Aubigny’s plantation, she reflects on how sad the place looks. The black slaves who work on the plantation know no happiness, in stark contrast to the relative contentment they had known when Aubigny’s father (now dead) had been the man in charge.
When Madame Valmondé sees Désirée’s baby, which is four weeks old, she is shocked by the young baby boy’s appearance. But Désirée is extremely happy, and tells her adoptive mother that her husband is a proud father who has not mistreated his slaves since his son was born. But three months after her baby’s birth, Désirée begins to sense something is amiss. Her husband becomes increasingly distant with her.
Eventually, when she confronts her husband over their child, he gruffly tells her that she is not white and must be of mixed race. Mortified, Désirée writes to her mother, asking her to refute the accusation against her. Madame Valmondé writes back, telling her to come home and to bring her child. When she asks Aubigny what she should do, he tells her to go. He has fallen out of love with her because of the ‘unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name.’
Désirée does not want to leave her husband, but when he makes no attempt to stop her, she makes the difficult journey to her adoptive mother’s, taking her baby with her. The story ends with Aubigny burning a series of items in a large bonfire, including some letters.
One of these letters was written by Aubigny’s mother and addressed to his father; this letter reveals that Aubigny has black ancestry, with his mother thanking God that she and her husband had so arranged their 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.’
‘Désirée’s Baby’: analysis
Although the plot of Kate Chopin’s story appears to have been definitively resolved by the end of ‘Désirée’s Baby’, the twist ending is more ambiguous than it may first appear. After we have been led to believe that Désirée, whose biological parentage is unknown, is ‘responsible’ for the mixed-race appearance of her and Aubigny’s baby, the final paragraph reveals that Aubigny has black ancestry.
Indeed, there is even a question-mark hanging over how long Armand Aubigny has known about his own ancestry. Presumably he has known all along, and one might suspect that one of the reasons, perhaps even the chief reason, he was drawn to Désirée as a potential mother for his children was that she was ‘white’ enough for him to ensure (so he believed) that their children conceived together would not show any signs of his own mixed-race blood.
Désirée describes her own skin as ‘fair’ at one point, and Chopin makes numerous references to her ‘white’ clothes: after giving birth she is dressed in ‘her soft white muslins and laces’, and later she is in a ‘thin white garment’. These references to whiteness in relation to Désirée not only emphasise her ‘fair’ skin but also symbolise her purity and innocence: she is not guilty of committing any crime, and indeed, the end of the story suggests she wasn’t even unconsciously responsible for her child’s mixed-race blood.
Note the wording we use here, however: what the story does not reveal is that Aubigny but not Désirée is the parent with black ancestry. After all, it might still be both. A question mark hangs over Désirée’s racial heritage, and it remains possible that both of them have black ancestors. Indeed, when the story was first published in Vogue magazine in 1893, it bore the longer title, ‘The Father of Désirée’s Baby’. This title threw the focus firmly onto Aubigny, rather than his child with Désirée; Chopin presumably shortened the title to remove this hint as to the story’s eventual revelation.
The eventual title also makes the child, but also Désirée herself, the focal point of the story. And Chopin makes it clear that becoming Aubigny’s wife but also the mother of their child has been a source of great happiness, not just for Désirée, but for her husband as well. When doubts start to creep in surrounding the baby’s appearance and racial heritage, Chopin is inviting her readers to question whether such a development is worth sacrificing all of this new-found happiness over.
After all, Désirée has been faithful to Aubigny. The sacrament of their marriage remains intact. She has done nothing that would lead him to mistrust her or her fidelity to him. Indeed, when the story’s omniscient third-person narrator switches to Aubigny and focalises the story through his eyes, it’s made clear that he acknowledges that the ‘injury’ she has brought on their home is ‘unconscious’ on her part: she did not deliberately seek to sabotage their happiness. It is the social stigma around miscegenation which is responsible for that.
And even if the twist ending of the story doesn’t definitively clear up the issue of Désirée’s ancestry, it does invite us to question the logic of apportioning ‘blame’ over such a matter. If Armand Aubigny, whose family name is one of the ‘proudest’ in Louisiana, cannot know his own racial heritage, how can Désirée be expected to know hers?
Miscegenation is the key theme of ‘Désirée’s Baby’. Miscegenation (the ‘mis-’ is actually from miscere, meaning ‘mix’: the word literally means ‘mixed race’, more or less) was a difficult and emotive topic in late-nineteenth-century America when Chopin was writing, and Aubigny, the white owner of a slave plantation, would have been even more aware of the problems attendant on siring a mixed-race baby: rumours would doubtless start that he had sired the child out of wedlock with one of his slaves, or that his wife had cuckolded him with one of the male slaves working for him.
There was also the racial hierarchy which was still very much in existence in the United States. Aubigny’s social position would be damaged by such a revelation. This is why he is more concerned by the ‘unconscious injury’ he perceives Désirée to have caused to ‘his home and his name’, i.e., his reputation.
However, it is worth noting that he was willing to accept his wife’s mysterious origins when he fell in love with her. Here Chopin has also raised the importance of names: Aubigny ‘was reminded that she was nameless’, we are told, but he was not bothered about her lack of family reputation or standing: ‘What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?’
But Désirée’s lack of a name will turn out to matter to him more than Armand Aubigny initially realised, since her lack of a name also suggests – perhaps wrongly, it turns out – that she was the product of miscegenation between a black slave and a white American. Chopin’s story reveals what a fraught and sensitive issue miscegenation could be for American families at this time, while also inviting us to question whether it is worth destroying one’s marital and parental happiness over.