Désirée's Baby by Kate Chopin, 1892
by Kate Chopin, 1892
The first paragraphs of Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" read like a fairy tale. The wealthy Monsieur Valmondé discovers a foundling sleeping in his gateway and presents her to his wife, who loves her like the child she has never had. Eighteen years later this beautiful foundling, Désirée, is discovered standing in the same gateway by Armand Aubigny, yet another wealthy man, who falls in love with her, makes her his wife, and takes her home with him to L'Abri ("the shelter"). At this point Chopin works a turn on the fairy tale, moving from romance to Gothic horror. Désirée gives birth to a son, and although Aubigny initially shares his wife's delight, as weeks pass his delight turns to the darkest displeasure. Désirée cannot fathom the change in her husband, until one afternoon she finds herself studying the similarities between a half-naked quadroon boy and her son. Confused, frightened, Désirée says to Aubigny, "Look at our child. What does it mean?" And Aubigny answers, "It means that you are not white." This pronouncement, and Aubigny's obvious abhorrence of his wife, prompt her suicide; with her son in her arms she walks into the bayou.
Some weeks after Désirée's death, while burning her effects, Aubigny comes upon the remnant of a letter from his mother to his father in which his mother thanks God that Aubigny "will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery."
Early readers of "Désirée's Baby" commented upon its tightness of plot, praised its poignancy, and compared it favorably to the stories of Maupassant, whose work was admired by Chopin. Most placed it within the tradition of local color. Not until the 1970s did "Désirée's Baby" begin to receive the critical attention it deserves. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in "Kate Chopin and the Fiction of Limits: 'Désirée's Baby,"' reads the story as representative of Chopin's work as it concerns the instability of boundaries with which we hope to contain and control our lives. Wolff shows how obvious color line violations in "Désirée's Baby" find echoes in violations between goodness and evil, life and death, civilization and the bayou. As Woolf observes, Chopin writes a "fiction of limits," focusing upon "the persistent shadow-line that threads its way through all of the significant transactions of our lives."
Anna Shannon Elfenbein, in 1989's Women on the Color Line, also attends to lines of demarcation in Chopin's story, highlighting the ways in which Aubigny imposes rigid categories on experience and Désirée acquiesces to these categories. The product of a patriarchal and racist culture, this husband insists upon a wide gap between positions of power and powerlessness; he assumes determinative power over his wife and children, deciding who bears his name, who belongs to his family. Désirée, meanwhile, accedes to Aubigny's determinations; she defines herself on the basis of how he positions her.
Informed by Wolff and Elfenbein one might further highlight issues of gender and interpretive authority articulated within "Désirée's Baby." Like Georgiana in Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" (1843) and the unnamed narrator in Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), the heroine of Chopin's story is figured as a blank page, as a text to be written upon and read by men.
Numerous features of "Désirée's Baby" contribute to this figuration. First is Désirée's unknown parentage. Discovered by M. Valmondé, she is a cipher. It falls upon M. Valmondé to determine what kind of life she shall have, and he does so by taking her to his wife and by bestowing a name upon her ("desire," the sign of lack; and "Valmondé," the sign of this particular family). Interestingly, when found by M. Valmondé, Désirée does speak, but her speech is limited to "Dada," as if to suggest her complete subjection to the rule of the father. Second, the story imagines Aubigny "discovering" Désirée under the same gateway that Valmondé found her 18 years earlier. The parallelism suggests that once again Désirée is lacking—and of course she is; she has no husband, and despite her years at Valmondé "she [is] nameless." So Aubigny inscribes her with his name, and she shows her gratitude by being the wife he wants her to be and producing the son he desires. But this son proves flawed. Surrendering authority to her husband, Désirée begs him to tell her what it means, to interpret it for her. When he does so she utters her one cry of protest: "It is a lie…. Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand." For the first time Désirée offers an interpretation of her own, and evidence in its support, but Aubigny scornfully challenges her evidence: "As white as La Blanche's." His reply is definitive: a slave at L'Abri, La Blanche looks white and her name signifies whiteness, but she has given birth to quadroon boys (possibly fathered by Aubigny, who spends time at her cabin).
Désirée writes to Madame Valmondé, asking for a refutation, but Madame refuses to challenge the interpretation of a husband, offering instead a mother's love and encouraging Désirée to return home. Silent, white, "like a stone image," Désirée lays Madame's offer in front of Aubigny and asks if she should go. In doing so she again presents herself as a text to be written by her husband.
The final lines of "Désirée's Baby" take on a peculiarly horrific irony given the story's insistent positioning of men as interpretive authorities over women. The words written by Aubigny's mother suggest that she has not remained a blank page; she has coauthored a life with a man who loves her, a life that allows her to produce both the letter read by Aubigny and Aubigny himself. The return of this letter to Aubigny, like the return of the repressed, speaks of the terrible costs to both men and women when the former claim complete interpretive power and the latter acquiesce.
—Madonne M. Miner