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Désirée is the adopted daughter of Monsieur and Madame Valmondé, who are wealthy French Creoles in antebellum Louisiana. Abandoned 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 French Creole family, Armand. They marry and have a child. People who see the baby have the sense it is different. Eventually they realize that the baby's skin is the same color as a quadroon (one-quarter African) slave boy—the baby has African ancestry. At the time of the story, this would have been considered a problem for a person believed to be white.
Because of Désirée's unknown parents, Armand immediately assumes that she is part black. Désirée tries to deny the accusation. Madame Valmondé suggests that Désirée and the baby return to the Valmondé estate. Armand, scornful of Désirée, rejects her and insists that she leave. She takes their child and walks off into a bayou, never to be seen again. Armand burns 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 the one who is part black, by his mother's ancestry. Désirée's ancestry is never defined.
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 story leaves the moral conclusion up to the reader, suggesting it is naturalistic, but the fairytale-like elements of the love story are inconsistent with either naturalism or realism. The atmosphere of the story and the characterization of Armand create gothic undertones.
Though brief, the story raises important issues that plagued Chopin's South, particularly the pervasive and destructive, yet ambiguous nature of racism, especially given the numerous people of color in the society. 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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