Desiree's Baby is an 1892 story by Kate Chopin that examines how the Aubigny family falls apart due to assumptions and misunderstandings. In the story, Desiree, an orphan whose parentage is unknown and whom the Valmonde family lovingly raises, marries Armand Aubigny, a man whose father comes from a prominent family. Desiree eventually gets pregnant by and gives birth to Armand's son, who later is the cause for Armand to banish Desiree from their home as Armand's son appears to have been fathered by a man who is not white. While Armand works under the assumption that Desiree is not 100% white because no one knows who her parents are or that Desiree possibly had an adulterous affair, he does not consider the fact that he may be the reason his child is not 100% white. In Desiree's Baby, the consequences of perception, assumption, and identity, in relation to social status and race, are highlighted through Chopin's use of imagery and symbolism.
In Desiree's Baby, perceptions highly influence Armand's attitude towards Desiree before and after they are married, and after she gives birth to their son. While Desiree's biological parentage is unknown, and people often speculated "she had been purposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon, late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Mais kept, just below the plantation," Armand did not have any issues with his bride before they were married (Chopin). The upbringing Desiree experienced at the hands of the Valmondes allowed her to present herself as an upstanding member of the community, and a suitable wife for any man in the community, in essence, "the idol of Valmonde" (Chopin). Likewise, Armand is considered to come from a reputable family because of his father's background and heritage. Furthermore, because Armand's skin color is light, he is perceived by others to be white and thus is instilled with authority based on his family name. Armand also attempts to influence how people perceive him through his behavior towards his child. Desiree contends, "Oh, Armand is the proudest father in the parish, I believe, chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not, -- that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn't true. I know he says that to please me" (Chopin). Because Armand carries himself as though nothing were wrong with their child, Desiree does not perceive her baby to be a threat to their marriage.
Chopin also greatly influences how these characters are perceived by the public. For instance, Desiree's banishment from the Aubigny plantation has a greater impact through Chopin's use of symbolism and imagery. Chopin writes,
Desiree had not changed the thin white garment nor the slippers which she wore. Her hair was uncovered and the sun's rays brought a golden gleam from its brown meshes. She did not take the broad, beaten road which led to the far-off plantation of Valmonde. She walked across a deserted field, where the stubble bruised her tender feet, so delicately shod, and tore her thin gown to shreds.
In a sense, Desiree is being cast out into the wilderness. She is not only stripped of all material possessions and left with nothing but the "thin white garment" and the slippers she wore. It is difficult to overlook the martyr-like attributes given to Desiree at this point. The thin white garment she wears is similar to the white robe that Jesus Christ is often depicted wearing. Additionally, the sun makes her uncovered hair appear as though a halo or a crown sits on her head, thus emphasizing her innocence. Furthermore, the symbolism attributed to the desert is two-fold. The desert is an allusion to Biblical references and being forced to wander the desert after being cast out from society, which can be a reference to being expelled from Eden or to the Israelites who were forced to roam the desert for forty years after their exodus from Egypt.
Assumption plays a major role in "Desiree's Baby" and can be considered to be an extension of perception. Assumptions are often influenced by what an individual is able to perceive. Most of the assumptions made in "Desiree's Baby" revolve around Armand Aubigny. One of the first and central assumptions made about Armand is that both his parents were white. While his father's familial background asserts that he comes from a prominent family, no one takes into consideration his mother's family background because it is assumed that because Armand's father married her, she was also white. However, it is Armand's assumptions about his own family that leads to the destruction of it. Because Armand perceives his wife to be white, he assumes that she is black after giving birth to a quadroon baby. Armand goes as far as to accuse his wife of not being white to which she retorts, "It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair," seizing his wrist. "Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand," she laughed hysterically" (Chopin). It is this assumption that drives a wedge between Armand and his wife and child.
Desiree's assumptions about Armand's initial attitude towards her and his child lead her to believe that the birth of their son has softened his demeanor. "Marriage, and later the birth of his son had softened Armand Aubigny's imperious and exacting nature greatly" (Chopin). Desiree commented to her visiting mother, "[Armand] hasn't punished one of them -- not one of them -- since baby is born. Even Negrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg that he might rest from work -- he only laughed, and said Negrillon was a great scamp. Oh, mamma, I'm so happy; it frightens me" (Chopin). It can be deduced that Armand's attitude towards his slaves was changed because he immediately recognized that his son was not white and any punishment given to his slaves would be like punishing his own child. Furthermore, when Desiree does finally recognize that her child is not white, Armand does not appear to be bothered or surprised by her sudden realization. It is almost as though Armand has assumed Desiree knew her child's father was another man and that she had been unfaithful to him during their marriage. It is only after Armand has destroyed his own family by driving Desiree and their child away that he stumbles upon the truth. It was not Desiree's fault that their child was not white, but rather the child was not white because his father had kept the fact that Armand's mother was black from him. While cleaning out Desiree's belongings, Armand comes upon a letter written to his father by his mother. In the letter, Armand's mother is not only thanking God, but also writes, "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" (Chopin). Because Armand perceived himself as a white person, he simultaneously assumed he was white, and not half black as the letter points out.
These perceptions and assumptions directly influence identity. As demonstrated through "Desiree's Baby," race plays a major role in determining one's identity in society and determines his or her social status. While Monsieur Valmonde understands that Desiree's "obscure origin" may influence her identity and he reminded Armand "that she was nameless," Armand is initially willing to give his identity to her (Chopin). Chopin writes, "What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?" Chopin thus insinuates that an individual's identity was often closely tied to an individual's family and heritage. As such, Armand identifies himself as a white person because of his father's name. He completely disregards his mother's contribution to the formation of his identity, which consequently also highlights the prevailing sexism of the time. Moreover, Armand's treatment of his slaves emphasizes how he identifies slaves. Armand creates a clear distinction between himself and the slaves, not based on who they are, but rather on what he thinks they are. His attitude towards them can be seen by the way that he treats them and how it differs from how his father treated his slaves. "Young Aubigny's rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master's easy-going and indulgent lifetime" (Chopin). Paradoxically, Armand's father defined identity based on who an individual was and not on their social status, which explains how and why he allowed himself to fall in love with Armand's mother, who Chopin insinuates was one of his slaves; this also explains why Armand's father fled to Paris to marry her and it…