“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin: Motherhood and Miscegenation in 19th-Century America

Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin

This analysis of “Désirée’s Baby,” an 1893 short story by Kate Chopin, explores the narrative of miscegenation and motherhood in the antebellum American South. Chopin is best known for the groundbreaking classic novella The Awakening (1899).

Désirée, a young woman adopted as a child, is married to a plantation owner named Armaud. She is startled when she suddenly realizes that their baby is of a darker complexion than her own and her husband’s.

Chopin uses the setting of Louisiana to create a delicate yet hostile environment for a disillusioned young mother. Motherhood in this era can be deemed sensitive and complicated, since Désirée lives in a time when its treatment is based on ethnicity and social stratification.

The setting not only provides an environment for the characters in the story, but also advances each to their individual downfalls.

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Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin

Read the full text of “Désirée’s Baby”
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A complicated maternal history 

Désirée unknowingly has a complicated history and relationship with motherhood through her own two mothers. Désirée is a child of adoption; the history and relationship between her biological mother is intangible to her, and the readers.

Without or with intention, Chopin makes no clear note of Désirée’s mother. In fact, when Désirée is found as a baby by Monsieur Valmode, she says she utters the words, “Dada.” On the other hand, Désirée’s adoptive parents seem to be more than grateful for her spontaneous arrival.

Conflictingly, her adoptive mother, Madame Valmode, spoils Désirée and sees her as a gift from God: “In time Madame Valmode abandoned every speculation but the one that Désirée had been sent to her by a beneficent Providence.”

Although Désirée is portrayed as having a functional and happy childhood, her ideas surrounding motherhood are misconstrued from a young age, due to her biological mother’s abandonment.

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Kate Chopin as a young woman

Learn more about Kate Chopin
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La Blanche: A complicating factor

These factors cause Désirée to be confused as to what the maternal role should be, especially since in the era of slavery, Southern white women often delegated the responsibilities of motherhood to their female house slaves.

One could think of female house slaves as precursors to nannies and maids, but they had a greater amount of responsibilities imposed on them.

In this story, for example, La Blanche is a house slave who takes care of her three young boys along with Désirée’s baby. While the slave’s children are hinted as being Armaud’s, that doesn’t ease the struggles of tending to four young children.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

You might also like: Full text of The Awakening by Kate Chopin
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A shocking revelation

The tenderness with which Désirée goes about raising her own child takes a turn when she realizes her child is the same skin color as La Blanche’s children: “When the baby was about three months old, Désirée awoke one day to the conviction that there was something in the air menacing her peace.”

Chopin foreshadows the trepidation Désirée will soon encounter when she realizes her child’s origins.

Furthermore, once Désirée has come to the realization that her child is a product of miscegenation, she becomes maniacal, and her husband Armaud begins to feel animosity towards her and his child. The question arises in the reader’s mind as to why Armaud is resentful towards his wife but does not have the same feelings towards La Blanche.

The differences between the two are their social status and racial makeup. Also, Désirée hasn’t been held to the same standard of motherhood as La Blanche has. La Blanche is not just a mother in Armaud’s eyes but also a worker, objectified for profit and use.

When she turns to her husband for empathy, she is unexpectedly greeted with rage: “Armaud,” she panted once more, clutching his arm, “look at our child. What does it mean? Tell me,” she begs of him.

In response he tells her, “[T]hat the child is not white; it means that you are not white.” Armaud immediately assumes and blames Désirée for the child’s African descent.

 

A devastating decision

This accusation proves overwhelming for Désirée (the confusion of her child and now her own origins), and leads to what appears to be a demise; she took the child and “disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.”

Désirée’s final act as a mother to her child can be seen as selfish and destructive, but it’s also a gesture of protection against the racism of the antebellum era.

The mendacity of Armaud and the naïveté in which Désirée was raised produced devastating consequences on the experience of motherhood in the antebellum South, where strict social and racial strictures reigned, and endured long past the end of slavery.

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Contributed by Oona Uishama Narvaez. Oona is an ardent writer from El Paso, Texas. She is a passionate reader currently pursuing a degree in creative writing.

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