Madame Valmondé visits L’Abri to see Désirée and her new baby, and on the way, she reminisces about when Désirée was herself a baby. Monsieur had found her asleep at the gateway of Valmondé, and when Désirée awoke, she could do little but cry for “Dada.” People believe that a passing band of Texans had abandoned her, but Madame Valmondé believes only that Providence sent her this beautiful, gentle, and affectionate child because she lacked children of her own.
When Armand Aubigny saw Désirée standing next to the stone pillar of the gateway eighteen years later, he fell in love with her immediately, although he had known her for years since first arriving from Paris after his mother’s death. Monsieur Valmondé wanted to ensure that Désirée’s unknown origin was carefully considered, but Armand did not care because he was so much in love. He decided that if she did not have a family name, then he would give her his own, and soon they were married.
Madame Valmondé has not seen the baby for a month, and she shudders when she visits L’Abri because the place looks so sad without a woman to oversee the Aubigny household. Armand’s mother had loved France too much to leave the country and had lived and died in France, and no woman has since taken over. Meanwhile, Armand is strict with his workers, and L’Abri has lost its easygoing nature.
When Madame Valmondé sees Désirée lying beside her baby, she is startled to see the baby’s appearance. Speaking in French, Désirée laughs that he has indeed grown strangely, and she remarks on his hearty cries. However, Madame Valmondé observes the child more closely and uneasily asks about Armand’s thoughts. Désirée proudly says that Armand is glad to have a son and that he has softened considerably in his treatment of the slaves since his marriage and the child’s birth. Armand is by nature imperious and exacting, but she loves him desperately, and he has not frowned since he fell in love with her.
When the baby is three months old, Désirée is suddenly disturbed by a subtle feeling of menace, which is marked by a general air of mystery, unannounced visits from neighbors, and a strange change in her husband’s behavior. He begins to avoid her and treat his slaves badly, and Désirée feels miserable. One afternoon, as she sits in her room, she looks at her son and at one of the one-fourth black children, who is fanning her son. The similarity between them dawns upon her, and she tells the other child to leave.
Frightened, she watches her child until Armand enters. She asks him about the child and asks what it means, and he responds coldly that if the child is not white, then she must not be white. Desperately, she responds that she is indeed white, with brown hair, gray eyes, and white skin, but he cruelly tells her that she is as white as their mixed-race slave La Blanche, and he leaves the room.
Despairing, Désirée writes to Madame Valmondé, who tells Désirée that she still loves her daughter and that Désirée should come back to Valmondé with the child. Désirée presents Madame Valmondé’s response to Armand, and he tells her to leave. Without changing, Désirée takes her son from the nurse and walks not to Valmondé but to the deserted bayou, where she disappears. Weeks later, at L’Abri, Armand is having his slaves feed a bonfire. He places a willow cradle and other remnants of his marriage to Désirée on the pyre, and the last object to burn is a bundle of letters. Among the letters is an unrelated letter that came from the same drawer, which was sent from his mother to his father. In the letter, which Armand reads, his mother thanks his father for their love and thanks God that Armand will never learn that his mother has mixed blood.
Kate Chopin often wrote about subjects that were particularly sensitive during her lifetime, and many of them still strike a nerve in the United States today. In “Désirée’s Baby,” Chopin offers a compelling critique of the class-based and racial prejudice that permeated the attitudes of the antebellum South. In addition, through the relationship between Désirée and Armand, Chopin explores the precarious status of both those without a family and those of biracial descent. Désirée is unlucky enough to end up on the wrong side of both of these characteristics, it seems, and in the wrenching latter part of the tale, she turns her social isolation from a mental and emotional state to a physical one as she goes across the bayou and disappears from civilization. As in “Beyond the Bayou,” the bayou is a symbolic border, but Désirée loses herself by crossing it while the heroine of “Beyond the Bayou” gains a new life.
In the nineteenth century, sexual relations between two people of different races, or miscegenation, bore a distinctly derogatory connotation. As evidenced by the quadroon slave child who fans Désirée’s own baby, interracial relations did occur with relative frequency, but such children often ended up as slaves under the theory that even one drop of African or “black” blood made a person black rather than white. At the same time, many biracial people who happened to inherit pale skin and European rather than African features were able to assimilate at least temporarily into white society, “passing” for white if they chose. In Armand’s case, he did not even have to hide because he did not know his status. Some people who passed as white, like Armand, even successfully entered the Southern “ruling” class, which was not only putatively white but also rich from owning plantation lands. Meanwhile, whereas most people fell on one side of the social divide between black and white, those of mixed descent lived on the border of social acceptability. Thus, the quadroon boy serving the quadroon master is ironic but also representative of the biracial group as a demographic sector of the population.
The second major irony of Chopin’s story is that although Désirée is probably of Caucasian blood after all, only she and her innocent baby suffer from the accusation of miscegenation, whereas the mixed-race Armand Aubigny will probably not face any consequences for either his racial descent or his cruelty to his wife. This patently unjust state of affairs occurs not only because Armand will probably take the secret to his grave but also because, as Chopin informs us in the third paragraph, Désirée’s status is as much a question of familial class as of racial class. Although her presumed European ancestry places her above the slave class in the hierarchy of Louisiana, being white is not sufficient to place her in a class equal to that of the Aubignys. Note also that although Armand can echo his father in forgiving a beloved woman for her societal status, Armand can never be his father’s equal because he cannot forgive her presumed racial heritage. By contrast, Madame Valmonde is portrayed as loving, kind, and eminently ethical in her refusal to condemn Désirée for her questionable blood.
In addition to hinting at Armand’s family secret, Chopin hints at his cruelty toward his slaves and creates an obvious parallel between his treatment of them and of his wife, who was by the legal code of the era barely higher than property. Whereas his father is described as “easy-going and indulgent,” Armand lives too strictly by the social mores of his era and not enough by a true moral code. Despite her name, Désirée is only desired insofar as his standards are exceeded, and when he burns their wedding corbeille, it is the physical manifestation of the destruction of their wedding vows, in which he presumably would have promised to cherish and care for her until death. In this manner, his seemingly ardent love shows itself to be shallow and undeserving.
Chopin foreshadows the final revelation of Armand’s biracial descent throughout the story as she consistently associates Désirée with white imagery while emphasizing Armand’s darkness. When Désirée first appears physically within the story, she is resting in “soft white muslin and laces,” and she continues to wear “thin white garment[s]” throughout the narrative. When she asks Armand if she should go, Chopin describes her as “silent, white, [and] motionless,” and as she herself mentions, her hand is less dark than that of her husband. By contrast, Armand has a “dark, handsome face,” and consequently the reversal is not necessarily a surprise when he reads his mother’s letter and discovers the truth about the source of his son’s African blood.
The story opens with Madame Valmonde visiting Desiree and her baby. On her way to L’Abri, she reminisces about Desiree’s childhood. Desiree was a foundling discovered by Monsieur Valmonde. He found her "lying in the shadow of the big stone pillar," as he was galloping through the gateway to Valmonde. The general opinion was that she was left behind by a "party of Texans," but Madame Valmonde believed Desiree was sent to her by God as she was not able to have her own children.
Eighteen years later, Armand Aubigny all of a sudden falls in love with Desiree when he sees her standing against the stone pillar, even though they knew each other since they were small children, ever since Armand and his father came from Paris, after his mother died. Monsieur Valmonde proposes that before their relationship becomes more serious, Desiree’s origin should be examined. However, Armand is so in love that he does not care about Desiree’s ancestors and decides it does not matter that she does not have a family name of her own, if he can give her a perfectly good one, and so they get married.
Madame Valmonde has a surprise awaiting her. She has not seen the baby for a month and when she arrives to L’Abri she is shocked to see the baby's appearance. Desiree remarks about how much he has grown. However, it is apparent that she does not see anything wrong with her son. She is very happy. Ever since the baby was born, her husband Armand, who was very strict and harsh, has softened a great deal.
When the baby is three months old, the situation in the house changes. Desiree senses there is something wrong. On top of that, Armand becomes cold and avoids both Desiree and the baby. One afternoon Desiree is sitting in her room and starts observing her child and a little quadroon boy who was fanning it. The similarity between them frightens her and she sends the boy away.
When Armand arrives back home, Desiree asks him about the baby. He responds that indeed the baby is not white, which means that she is not white either. Desiree points out all her physical features that strongly suggest that she is white, but her angry husband tells her she is as white as their mixed-race slaves.
Desperate, Desiree writes to her mother, Madame Valmonde, asking for help. Madame Valmonde tells her to come back home because she still loves her. Afterwards, Desiree asks her husband about his opinion and he sends her away. As a result of that, Desiree takes her baby and leaves the house. However, she does not take the road leading to the Valmonde, but instead she disappears in the bayou.
Several weeks after, Armand sets up a bonfire to get rid of Desiree’s belongings. Among the stuff he decides to throw away, Armand finds several letters. Most of them are "little scribblings" Desiree sent him in the days of their engagement, but he also finds one that is addressed from his mother to his father. In the letter, his mother thanks God for her husband’s love, but she also reveals that she is grateful that her son will never know that his mother "belongs to the race that is cursed by slavery."