Mingling in the Bayou: Navigating the Interracial Twists and Turns of Kate Chopin’s Short Story Desiree’s Baby

Chopin, Kate. “Desiree’s Baby.” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2011. 241-245. Print.

The introduction of Kate Chopin’s short story “Desiree’s Baby” begins similarly to the biblical story of Noah as a baby, within the shelter of the papyrus and tar sealed basket, floating down the Nile River into the reeds and eventually to the caring hands of the Pharaoh’s daughter. Chopin depicts Desiree as a child perhaps abandoned, perhaps having wandered astray: “found lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar” (242). However, as characterized in this story, the Pharaoh’s daughter is none other than Madame Valmonde. The Madame soon sheds the tangled assumptions of where the child came from, and becomes an unequivocal believer that “Desiree had been sent to her by a beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing that she was without child of the flesh” (242).

Desiree comes of age and soon attracts a lover by the name of Armand Aubigny: “That was the way all Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot” (242). The pair is soon joined in marriage and a baby is born. Desiree’s guardian mother Madame Valmonde visits her pride and joy Desiree and the new baby, and, at first sight of the child, beholds it queerly. But stifles her intuition and is happy and content with her growing family.  

“When the baby was about three months old, Desiree awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace” (243). It is here that Chopin begins to breath a fowl scent into the story as Desiree comes to discover a stomach churning discovery; all the while her husband Armand acting peculiar to the point of anger, and tensions unspoken. She is in the company of a quadroon boy (a boy having one quarter black ancestry) who is fanning the child, cooling him from the stifling Louisiana humidity. Desiree begins to match the quadroon boy’s skin color with her own child’s. “The blood turned like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gathered upon her face” (243). 

Armand finally bursts, unable to withhold the conclusions of his mental fury any longer, and accuses Desiree of not being a fully white woman, stating that her unknown past has finally shown its roots within the skin color of their baby. Beside herself, Desiree denies her husband, comparing her own skin to her husbands: “Look at my hand; whiter than yours Armand…” (244).

Soon, Desiree, with baby in arms, escapes the forced abandonment Armand has unswervingly propelled. “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” (245).

Days pass and Armand deploys his manpower to create a giant bonfire to burn the remains of any materialistic inkling of Desiree or the child. “Armand Aubigny sat in the wide hallway that commanded a view of the spectacle; and it was he who dealt out to a dozen negroes the material which kept this fire ablaze” (245).  In turning the knife, Chopin ends the story with a note of retribution. A letter is found from within the deepest corner of a drawer, a letter from Armand’s mother to his father: “But above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our 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” (245).

One of Chopin’s most poignant short stories, “Desiree’s Baby” grabs attention as well as endures. The prose is surgical and evokes abundant interpretation. The fourth paragraph of the story is one of the shortest, most balanced compositions of simultaneous imagery and information that I have ever read.

There are many aspects of the story that allow for imaginative conclusions. For instance, when Desiree retrieves her baby and commences a dysphoric walk into the wild overgrowth of the bayou, the outcome could be interpreted as a hopeless one, hinging on the act of suicide and likewise, a baby’s murder. For what hope was there for both Desiree and her child after such humiliation and severed love? On the other side of the coin, optimistically, she may have just required some time to think, or perhaps hide until she regained her bearings in developing a plan of further escape. 

In the greater picture, the message of the story is not far beneath the surface. In fact, it is about the surface –the surface of skin, and the mindless oppression surrounding its many shades of color.  

About Hudson Saffell (36 Articles)
Freelance Writer / Editor
%d bloggers like this: