"Desiree's Baby" by Kate Chopin: A Question of Race
By Donna Hendry
"Desiree's Baby," a short story by Kate Chopin, tells the story of Desiree Valmonde, a woman brought up in the genteel white world of Louisiana during slavery. Her story, with its surprise ending, forces students to take a close look at race in the 1800s. This lesson is suitable for middle and high schoolers, and offers a vocabulary list, as well as discussion questions around topics the story raises.
For a list of standards that this unit addresses, click here.
Two class periods
"Desiree's Baby" http://www.pbs.org/katechopin/library/desireesbaby.html
Vocabulary list, provided below
Discussion Questions, provided below
Gateway Resources on Kate Chopin
Explore ideas of race in late 19th century Louisiana
Gain an understanding of late 19th century American literature
Learn to recognize the literary element of foreshadowing
Analyze the role of women in the 19th Century American South
Before introducing the story, have your students write a one paragraph description of themselves, including as many details about their physical traits as well as character traits, prioritizing them within the paragraph from most distinguishing feature to least.
Have volunteers read their paragraphs aloud in class.
Pose the following open-ended questions to the class:
How many of you chose a physical trait as your most distinguishing feature?
Where was your race or skin color "placed" within the paragraph, if at all?
Do you think that in your community today, race places an important role in defining people? What other characteristics take a higher priority, in your opinion?
How do you think your community may differ in its opinion about defining people by race compared to a community in a totally different region of the U.S.?
Read the short story "Desiree's Baby" By Kate Chopin.
Assign vocabulary below as homework or have students take notes on vocabulary.
Share the story the first time as a read-aloud.
Stop occasionally, sharing discussion questions, below.
Introduce the concept of foreshadowing.
Have students re-read the story either in class or as homework, and look for examples of foreshadowing.
When students return to class, have them discuss the southern mores of race in the antebellum south. Try to have students give specific examples from the text to validate their beliefs.
Choose one of the post reading activities as an assessment piece.
Why was Armand's rule over the slaves a strict one? How had his father treated their slaves?
Why would it matter that Desiree's background was unknown?
Why did Madame Valmonde look at the child in the best light available? Why did she focus her look at Zandrine?
Explain why Chopin uses the word "her" in this line:
"He absented himself from home; and when there, avoided her presence and that of her child, without excuse."
How did Desiree feel about slavery? About the way Armand treated the slaves? What makes you think this?
"One of La Blanche's little quadroon boys--half naked too--stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers." From this, what do you deduce that La Blanche is?
"A quick conception of all this accusation meant for her..." What do you think it meant? Why was it important?
Why didn't Desiree go back to Valmonde? Why does she accept her fate without fighting? What does that tell you about her role as a woman, and her place in society?
What would be the consequences to Armand and the plantation if it were found that he had African ancestry?
Beneficent: Characterized by or performing acts of kindness or charity. Producing benefit; beneficial.
Corbeille: A sculptured basket of flowers or fruits used as an architectural ornament. Also a wastebasket, or satchel. (translated from French websites)
Parish: An administrative subdivision in Louisiana that corresponds to a county in other U.S. states.
Imperious: Arrogantly domineering or overbearing. Urgent; pressing.
Quadroon: An offspring of a Mulatto and a White parent; a person who is one-quarter Black.
Sombre: dull; dusky; somewhat dark; gloomy; as, a somber forest; a somber house; Also somber.
Pyre: A heap of combustibles for burning a corpse as a funeral rite. A pile of combustibles.
Layette: A set of clothing and bedding for a newborn child.
Espousal: A Betrothal. A wedding ceremony.
Cowl: The hood or hooded robe worn especially by a monk. A draped neckline on a woman's garment. A hood-shaped covering used to increase the draft of a chimney. The top portion of the front part of an automobile body, supporting the windshield and dashboard.
Pall: A cover for a coffin, bier, or tomb, often made of black, purple, or white velvet. A coffin, especially one being carried to a grave or tomb. A covering that darkens or obscures: a pall of smoke over the city. A gloomy effect or atmosphere: "A pall of depressed indifference hung over Petrograd during February and March 1916" (W. Bruce Lincoln).
Bayou: A body of water, such as a creek or small river, that is a tributary of a larger body of water. A sluggish stream that meanders through lowlands, marshes, or plantation grounds.
Foreshadowing: Literary device, to present an indication or a suggestion of beforehand; presage.
Definitions taken from Dictionary.com except where noted. Teachers may also want to point out the use of the word "Negroes" was appropriate for the time in which the story was written. As well, the word "gay" meant happy, and not the connotation commonly assumed today.
Post Reading Questions and Activities
Using a Venn diagram, have students list comments from the story on whether or not Armand knew his race prior to the child's birth. Have the class debate whether or not Armand knew his race prior to the child's birth.
Reread the story, listing any elements of foreshadowing they can find. How is this element especially effective in the genre of the short story, and specifically, this one.
Have students research African-American Plantation owners, such as John Roy Lynch. How did they differ from white plantation owners? Did they have slaves? How were they treated?
Kate Chopin was an early writer in the genre of "local color". Have students examine this genre, and learn about other writers who worked in this style.