Madame Valmondé visits L’Abri to see Désirée and her new baby, and on the way, she reminisces about when Désirée was herself a baby. Monsieur had found her asleep at the gateway of Valmondé, and when Désirée awoke, she could do little but cry for “Dada.” People believe that a passing band of Texans had abandoned her, but Madame Valmondé believes only that Providence sent her this beautiful, gentle, and affectionate child because she lacked children of her own.
When Armand Aubigny saw Désirée standing next to the stone pillar of the gateway eighteen years later, he fell in love with her immediately, although he had known her for years since first arriving from Paris after his mother’s death. Monsieur Valmondé wanted to ensure that Désirée’s unknown origin was carefully considered, but Armand did not care because he was so much in love. He decided that if she did not have a family name, then he would give her his own, and soon they were married.
Madame Valmondé has not seen the baby for a month, and she shudders when she visits L’Abri because the place looks so sad without a woman to oversee the Aubigny household. Armand’s mother had loved France too much to leave the country and had lived and died in France, and no woman has since taken over. Meanwhile, Armand is strict with his workers, and L’Abri has lost its easygoing nature.
When Madame Valmondé sees Désirée lying beside her baby, she is startled to see the baby’s appearance. Speaking in French, Désirée laughs that he has indeed grown strangely, and she remarks on his hearty cries. However, Madame Valmondé observes the child more closely and uneasily asks about Armand’s thoughts. Désirée proudly says that Armand is glad to have a son and that he has softened considerably in his treatment of the slaves since his marriage and the child’s birth. Armand is by nature imperious and exacting, but she loves him desperately, and he has not frowned since he fell in love with her.
When the baby is three months old, Désirée is suddenly disturbed by a subtle feeling of menace, which is marked by a general air of mystery, unannounced visits from neighbors, and a strange change in her husband’s behavior. He begins to avoid her and treat his slaves badly, and Désirée feels miserable. One afternoon, as she sits in her room, she looks at her son and at one of the one-fourth black children, who is fanning her son. The similarity between them dawns upon her, and she tells the other child to leave.
Frightened, she watches her child until Armand enters. She asks him about the child and asks what it means, and he responds coldly that if the child is not white, then she must not be white. Desperately, she responds that she is indeed white, with brown hair, gray eyes, and white skin, but he cruelly tells her that she is as white as their mixed-race slave La Blanche, and he leaves the room.
Despairing, Désirée writes to Madame Valmondé, who tells Désirée that she still loves her daughter and that Désirée should come back to Valmondé with the child. Désirée presents Madame Valmondé’s response to Armand, and he tells her to leave. Without changing, Désirée takes her son from the nurse and walks not to Valmondé but to the deserted bayou, where she disappears. Weeks later, at L’Abri, Armand is having his slaves feed a bonfire. He places a willow cradle and other remnants of his marriage to Désirée on the pyre, and the last object to burn is a bundle of letters. Among the letters is an unrelated letter that came from the same drawer, which was sent from his mother to his father. In the letter, which Armand reads, his mother thanks his father for their love and thanks God that Armand will never learn that his mother has mixed blood.
Kate Chopin often wrote about subjects that were particularly sensitive during her lifetime, and many of them still strike a nerve in the United States today. In “Désirée’s Baby,” Chopin offers a compelling critique of the class-based and racial prejudice that permeated the attitudes of the antebellum South. In addition, through the relationship between Désirée and Armand, Chopin explores the precarious status of both those without a family and those of biracial descent. Désirée is unlucky enough to end up on the wrong side of both of these characteristics, it seems, and in the wrenching latter part of the tale, she turns her social isolation from a mental and emotional state to a physical one as she goes across the bayou and disappears from civilization. As in “Beyond the Bayou,” the bayou is a symbolic border, but Désirée loses herself by crossing it while the heroine of “Beyond the Bayou” gains a new life.
In the nineteenth century, sexual relations between two people of different races, or miscegenation, bore a distinctly derogatory connotation. As evidenced by the quadroon slave child who fans Désirée’s own baby, interracial relations did occur with relative frequency, but such children often ended up as slaves under the theory that even one drop of African or “black” blood made a person black rather than white. At the same time, many biracial people who happened to inherit pale skin and European rather than African features were able to assimilate at least temporarily into white society, “passing” for white if they chose. In Armand’s case, he did not even have to hide because he did not know his status. Some people who passed as white, like Armand, even successfully entered the Southern “ruling” class, which was not only putatively white but also rich from owning plantation lands. Meanwhile, whereas most people fell on one side of the social divide between black and white, those of mixed descent lived on the border of social acceptability. Thus, the quadroon boy serving the quadroon master is ironic but also representative of the biracial group as a demographic sector of the population.
The second major irony of Chopin’s story is that although Désirée is probably of Caucasian blood after all, only she and her innocent baby suffer from the accusation of miscegenation, whereas the mixed-race Armand Aubigny will probably not face any consequences for either his racial descent or his cruelty to his wife. This patently unjust state of affairs occurs not only because Armand will probably take the secret to his grave but also because, as Chopin informs us in the third paragraph, Désirée’s status is as much a question of familial class as of racial class. Although her presumed European ancestry places her above the slave class in the hierarchy of Louisiana, being white is not sufficient to place her in a class equal to that of the Aubignys. Note also that although Armand can echo his father in forgiving a beloved woman for her societal status, Armand can never be his father’s equal because he cannot forgive her presumed racial heritage. By contrast, Madame Valmonde is portrayed as loving, kind, and eminently ethical in her refusal to condemn Désirée for her questionable blood.
In addition to hinting at Armand’s family secret, Chopin hints at his cruelty toward his slaves and creates an obvious parallel between his treatment of them and of his wife, who was by the legal code of the era barely higher than property. Whereas his father is described as “easy-going and indulgent,” Armand lives too strictly by the social mores of his era and not enough by a true moral code. Despite her name, Désirée is only desired insofar as his standards are exceeded, and when he burns their wedding corbeille, it is the physical manifestation of the destruction of their wedding vows, in which he presumably would have promised to cherish and care for her until death. In this manner, his seemingly ardent love shows itself to be shallow and undeserving.
Chopin foreshadows the final revelation of Armand’s biracial descent throughout the story as she consistently associates Désirée with white imagery while emphasizing Armand’s darkness. When Désirée first appears physically within the story, she is resting in “soft white muslin and laces,” and she continues to wear “thin white garment[s]” throughout the narrative. When she asks Armand if she should go, Chopin describes her as “silent, white, [and] motionless,” and as she herself mentions, her hand is less dark than that of her husband. By contrast, Armand has a “dark, handsome face,” and consequently the reversal is not necessarily a surprise when he reads his mother’s letter and discovers the truth about the source of his son’s African blood.