In pre-civil war Louisianna, Desirée, as a baby is abandoned outside the Valmonde’s house. The Valmondes take her in and raise her. There is much speculation regarding Desirée’s origins but she grows up to be a beautiful young woman and attracts the attention of rich and respected Armand Aubigny who falls madly in love with her and marries her despite the fact that she is nameless. When their first baby is born, its appearance comes as a shock to everyone: it is obviously mixed race. Armand comes to the realization that his child is part black, his attitude towards his wife changes and when Desirée confronts him he sends her and the baby away, never to be seen again. A few weeks after Desirée’s disappearance Armand makes a shocking discovery: a letter from his mother to his father thanking him from keeping her African ancestry secret.
This story is very short but really packs a punch in its few pages. Perhaps because it is so short Kate Chopin can’t mince words and uses some powerful metaphors.
‘… fell in love as if struck by a pistol shot.’
‘The passion … swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire.’
‘…he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.’
Some of the references to Armand’s slaves are quite shocking to modern sensitivities. Despite being short, the story offers plenty of food for thought. ‘Desirée’ means ‘desired’ or ‘wanted’ and yet she is often unwanted, first by her birth family and then by her husband for her supposed ancestry despite living her life as ‘beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere’. It does seem that Armand is getting the better deal marrying Desirée: his house is ‘a sad looking place’ and his ‘rule was strict’. We do find out that since his marriage he has become more lenient and ‘softened (his) imperious and exacting nature greatly’ but all this change is reversed immediately with the cruel treatment that makes you wonder how genuine his love was in the first place. At the end of the story he seems to want to cancel all traces of his marriage. The scene with him sitting watching the bonfire burning his wedding presents and letters from his wife is particularly powerful. At that time he already knows the truth that he is the one with African ancestry and so his wife and child are ‘innocent’, but he hasn’t tried to go after them or look for them. He is completely insensitive to his mother’s love expressed in her letters to his father, going so far as to burn her letters too. The moral of the story is undefined but for me it could be about the power of a mother’s love. Her mother’s love is Desirées fortune too. Unable to have children Madame Valmonde believes that Desirée has been sent to her by God and idolizes her. Desirée consults her mother about what to do and without hesitation Madame Valmonde tells her to come back home with her child. Desirée cannot abandon her child herself and walks away from everything to save her child from scandal. Armand’s mother’s priority is that her son does not find out about her origins. It is a shame that despite his outward showing of power, Armand lacks the strength of character his father obviously had.
Desirées Baby has been a great introduction to Kate Choplin and I am looking forward to read more of her work.
In December, to get into the Christmas spirit, I will be reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for some key quotes.
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.