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Désirée is the adopted daughter of Monsieur and Madame Valmondé, who are wealthy Creoles in Louisiana. As a baby, she was discovered by Monsieur Valmondé lying in the shadow of a stone pillar near the Valmondé gateway. She is courted by the son of another wealthy, well-known and respected Creole family, Armand. They appear very devoted to one another and eventually have a child. People who see the baby get a sense that something is unusual about it. Eventually they realize that the baby's skin is the same color as a quadroon (one-quarter African) slave boy—the baby is not white. At the setting of the story, this would have been considered a terrible taint.
Because of Désirée's unknown roots, Armand immediately assumes that she is part black although Désirée tries to deny the accusation. Madame Valmondé suggests that Désirée and the baby return to the Valmondé estate. Armand, scornful with Désirée and no longer in love with her, insists on her going. Désirée then takes the child and walks off into a bayou, never to be seen again. Armand then proceeds to burn all of Désirée’s belongings, even the child's cradle, as well as all of the letters that she had sent him during their courtship. With this bundle of letters is also one written from his mother to his father, revealing that Armand is, in fact, the one who is part black. Désirée's race is never definitively determined.
Though Kate Chopin is usually considered to be a writer of American realism and naturalism, the story is difficult to classify, in part because it is extremely short. The fact that the story leaves the moral statement up to the reader would suggest that it is of naturalism, but the fairytale-like elements of the love story are inconsistent with either naturalism or realism. Furthermore the atmosphere of the story and the characterization of Armand create gothic undertones. Though brief, the story raises important issues that still plagued Chopin's South, particularly the pervasive and destructive yet ambiguous nature of racism. The story also questions the potential fulfillment of woman's identity—a subject that fascinated the unconventional Chopin. In her portrayal of Désirée, a woman whose self-worth and self-exploration is intrinsically linked to that of her husband, Chopin opened the door to her lifelong query into a woman's struggle for a place where she could fully belong. This story focuses on themes of hypocrisy and gender equality.
The story also seems to be a transposition of De Maupassant's "The Story of A Farm Girl."
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