“Désirée’s Baby” By Kate Chopin: Themes And Symbols

Désirée’s Baby, a short story written by Kate Chopin, depicts a woman’s life with unknown origins in Louisiana. The dramatic story includes her Southern husband, who exiles her from home because of her African – American origins. Chopin utilizes various symbols to raise themes of racism, hypocrisy, love, and woman’s role in a patriarchal society. The story can be examined using a historicism theory to evaluate the setting and events that impacted the writer.

According to the slave-owning system in which the events of Désirée’s baby story unfolded, it is not surprising that the author touches upon racism. The writer does so to illustrate how someone’s origins determine his life chances. The character who opposes African-Americans is Armand, Désirée’s husband. He is cruel to his slaves, such as “under it, his negroes had forgotten how to be gay” (Chopin, 1893, p. 3). Even his wife is terrified by his punishments to them. Thus, all servants in Aubigny’s place should endure these insults and brutality of the master.

Compared to black people, Désirée lives a privileged life even though she has an unknown heritage. Désirée indeed would have died as an abandoned toddler if she had been born black. No one, including her husband, is interested in her background as long as it is clear that she is not black. Her obscure origin portrays the most substantial racism in the story.

The themes of origin and racism intertwine to sharpen Armand’s hypocrisy and antagonism when he rejects Désirée and the baby because of their race. Being born into a mixed marriage, the young Aubigny has black ancestors, making him ineligible to judge others by color. Although his mother reveals the truth that Armand “belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery,” it does not make him any merciful to the enslaved people (Chopin, 1983, p. 6). This way, the writer skilfully interconnects the themes of racism, origin, and hypocrisy in Armand’s character.

The literary world recognizes Chopin as a feminist writer for many reasons. One is the hierarchical structure of the patriarchal society she outlines in Désirée’s Baby. The theme of gender bias is based on the rising culture of feminism in the 19th century. Like many other women at that time, Désirée’s role is subordinate to her husband, the head of the house. It was an accepted societal norm that women had no power over men. Chopin highlights Désirée’s dependence on her husband when her condition changes as her husband treats her differently: “Désirée was miserable enough to die” (Chopin, 1983, p.4). She leaves her husband because he no longer wants her. The protagonist of this story, Désirée, is a victim of underappreciation of women’s role in the community.

Love also plays a prominent role in the story. First, the comparison between Armand’s love and his father’s love concludes how weak Armand’s feelings are. The older Aubigny falls in love with a black woman and abandons the whole world to be with her. On the other hand, his son, passionately in love with Désirée, quickly falls out of love “because of the unconscious injury she had brought upon his home and his name” (Chopin, 1983, p.5). The writer illustrates the distinction between the unconditional love of Aubigny’s parents and the love destroyed by hypocrisy of Armand.

Parental love has no less significant place in the plotline. The female protagonist is adopted by Valmondé at the toddler age and is raised by them with all sincere love. Madame Valmondé always welcomes her child by writing: “Come home to Valmondé; back to your mother who loves you” (Chopin, 1983, p.5). Another example of parental love is Armand’s mother, who mentions adoration for her child in the letter. In contrast, Armand cannot prove such love to his child. Although Désirée says he is “the proudest father in the parish”, he refuses his boy because he is black (Chopin, 1983, p.3). This comparison helps to evaluate the parental love in two generations and highlights the cruelty people cannot overcome because of their beliefs.

The writer connects the symbols of the story to the themes. As mentioned in the name of the story, Désirée’s child is the critical animated symbol of the historically significant concept of black Americans’ intolerance before the Civil War and his innocence. The writer does not describe a baby except that “the child is not white” (Chopin, 1983, p.4). It is not his fault that he is born with unwanted skin color, but at the same time, he will have to bear this burden from the very first minute when his father refuses him. She specifically focuses on the symbol of a baby by showing how African-Americans had to suffer because of the invented principles of “impurity.”

The story’s beginning incorporates another symbol connected to the protagonist’s origins. Monsieur Valmondé finds his future daughter sleeping in the shadow of the big stone pillar. This shadow of the stone pillar is the shadow of Désirée’s unknown ancestry. It also symbolizes the love and cares she obtained in Valmondé’s house from her adoption. It signs a vital encounter in Désirée’s life with her future guardians.

The final symbols occur at the story’s resolution when Armand sets on fire all Désirée’s belongings. The first is the pyre, symbolizing his dedication to erasing all love from his heart and everything left from his loving Désirée: a graceful cradle, silk gowns, embroideries, bonnets, and finally, corbeille. Another important symbol from the same scene is his mother’s letter. It is the symbol of fate, retribution, and irony in this story. Armand, who punishes his slaves, has black ancestry, as mentioned by his mother. When he finds that his wife has African-American heritage, he thinks “Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him” (Chopin, 1983, p.5). However, the true requital comes from this letter. The writer reveals that all his prejudices apply to him since he is also of black origin.

The literary theory of Chopin’s story is new historicism which reflects the questions of racism during the Reconstruction Era and gender roles. Racism and slavery exist for two generations in the story as the black people are treated differently “during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime” (Chopin, 1983, p. 3). It examines the events surrounding the story’s setting. The writer depicts the things she experienced in her life. Chopin was born at a time when Americans owned plantations with enslaved people. Women at that time were viewed as property rather than human. They could not own anything compared to men. Therefore, she writes about racism through Armond’s personality and gender bias through Désirée’s character.

To conclude, Chopin discusses the crucial issues in Désirée’s Baby, such as racism, hypocrisy, gender roles, and love. She uses symbolism to describe each of them. Désirée’s child deepens racism, the stone pillar of Valmondé’s house illustrates mysterious origin, the pyre connects to love for Désirée, while a letter from Armond’s mother applies to his hypocrisy. The literary theory of historicism makes it possible to put context and characters together to produce the historical meaning of a story. The misjudgments and prejudices of the cultural, racial, and economic inequality reflect Armand’s character and American nations in the 19th century.


Chopin, K. (1893). Desiree’s baby. Gothic Digital Series.