In this lesson, we will examine the context and plot of Kate Chopin’s ‘Desiree’s Baby,’ and then we’ll explore some symbols in the story, including color, fire, and the stone pillar.
What is a symbol in literature? Symbols are ‘things’ in literature that stand for something else, usually an idea or a concept. Authors use symbols as clues to bigger meanings.
You might think about them as keys that help you unlock the text’s bigger codes. Even the smallest objects in literature likely have bigger meaning. Authors don’t include objects for no reason; they are present to tell you something more about the plot or the characters.
Chopin in Context
Kate Chopin is an American writer who published most of her writing at the end of the nineteenth century. She was born in St.
Louis, but then moved to Louisiana after she married. She incorporates many themes of Southern and Creole culture into her writing. (Creoles are descendants of French and Spanish rule in Louisiana.) You may have heard of (or even read) Chopin’s other famous texts, which include the novel The Awakening and the short story ‘The Story of an Hour.’ Unfortunately, Chopin’s brilliance was not fully acknowledged at the time, in great part because she wrote about progressive ideas, such as feminism.
The Plot of ‘Desiree’s Baby’
The narrative of the short story is fairly simple.
The rich, plantation-owning Valmonde family adopts Desiree after they find her by the side of the road. The son of another wealthy Creole family, Armand, falls for Desiree and they marry. Once they have a child, Armand comes to realize that the baby is of mixed race. (He compares the baby’s skin tone to a servant’s.) Armand rejects Desiree and the child, and Desiree walks off into nature. Armand begins burning her possessions. One of the letters that he burns, however, is from his family; it reveals that Armand is actually of mixed race.
Color is highly symbolic in ‘Desiree’s ‘Baby.’ First, the color white is important. Armand thinks that he is from a ‘pure’ white Creole family.
But he is actually of mixed race. He believes that African heritage is an impurity. But the irony is that he is the ‘tainted’ one, both biologically and morally.
Desiree points out: ‘Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand.’ But he refuses to accept what he sees. In the end, Desiree walks off into nature wearing white, suggesting that she remains morally pure.
When Armand first falls in love with Desiree, his passion is ‘like a prairie fire.’ But when he rejects her from his life, he burns all of her possessions and their love letters. The symbol of fire is both energizing and purifying, for fire both starts things (like engines, for example) and destroys things. The fire that earlier metaphorically burned in his heart turns into a literal fire that burns his family from his life.
The Stone Pillar
Let’s end with a symbol that’s a little more implicit. Desiree is discovered as a baby lying in the ‘shadow of the big stone pillar.’ This might suggest that she cannot ever escape the ‘shadow’ of the past, especially the darkness of tradition.
These concepts, such as racial purity, seem to be set in stone, and Desiree is doomed from the beginning to suffer from the inability to be in the light.
In this lesson, we defined symbols as ‘things’ in literature that carry deeper meaning or that reveal something bigger about the plot or characters. Then we examined both Chopin’s context and the plot of ‘Desiree’s Baby.’ Finally, we explored three symbols from the story that have deeper meaning: color, fire, and the stone pillar.