The Awakening Summary – Part 1
The first image readers encounter in The Awakening is a bird in a cage: a colorful (“green and yellow”) parrot who is repeatedly screeching, in French, “Go away, for heaven’s sake!” We learn that the bird can also speak Spanish, as well as “a language which nobody understood . . . .” Thus, from its first sentences, the novel prepares us for a story of a self who is “caged,” calling out to others in a “language” nobody understands, and which most will dismiss as nonsense or madness.
Mr. Leonce Pontellier has no use for the parrot’s squawking. The bird is disturbing his quiet Sunday at the cottages of Madame Lebrun at the Gulf Coast resort of Grand Isle. Mr. Pontellier does not go to the main house to read his paper in peace, however, for it proves noisier than the cottage. Some of the commotion there is being caused by Mr. Pontellier’s own two sons, trailed by their quadroon (one-quarter black) nurse. Mr. Pontellier also sees his wife, Edna-although note that he does not think of her at this point by name; judging from the narrator’s report, he thinks of her as “Mrs. Pontellier”-and Robert Lebrun, son of the Pontelliers’ hostess, returning from a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Pontellier judges “bath[ing] at such an hour in such heat” as “folly.” He tells his wife she is burned “beyond recognition,” evaluating her as one evaluates an item of property. Bored by their recitation of “some utter nonsense” that happened to them during their swim, Mr. Pontellier suggests to Robert that the two men play a game of billiards. Robert declines, saying he wishes to remain in Mrs. Pontellier’s company. Mr. Pontellier leaves alone and does not commit to returning in time for dinner. His children want to follow him; he dismisses them with a kiss and a promise to bring them bonbons and peanuts.
The Awakening Summary – Part 2
Edna and Robert talk with each other about their swim and about Robert’s desire to travel to Mexico in the fall to seek his fortune. He currently works as a clerk in a New Orleans mercantile house, earning a “modest” living. His mother, in contrast, is able to enjoy “the easy and comfortable existence which appeared to be her birthright,” thanks to “exclusive visitors” from the French Quarter who spend their summers with the Lebruns at Grand Isle. In this brief chapter, readers also learn a little about Edna’s background. She grew up on a plantation in Kentucky. She reads a letter from her sister, “who [is] away in the East.” Her husband has still not returned by the time she finishes reading the letter; Robert suggests that Mr. Pontellier is occupied elsewhere in the company of fellow “New Orleans club men” at Klein’s hotel. Edna leaves to go to her room; Robert plays with her children, who like him a great deal.
The Awakening Summary – Part 3
Mr. Pontellier does not return until late that night. He disturbs Edna’s sleep as he noisily empties his pockets and shares the gossip he has heard during the day with her. He is upset by her apparent lack of interest in what he has to say. He checks on his sleeping boys-for whom, the narrator notes, he has forgotten to bring the promised bonbons and peanuts-and announces to Edna that one of the children, Raoul, has a fever and needs attention. He then proceeds to smoke a cigar, criticizing Edna for being a poor mother. While her husband sleeps, Edna goes out to the porch to cry. She experiences an “indescribable oppression,” and readers can no doubt understand why. She is in a relationship with a man who regards her as little more than his personal property, intended to cater to his needs no matter the hour of day or night (an identification which Edna explicitly rejects toward the novel’s end; see Chapter XXXVI). Clearly, the narrator wishes reader to sympathize with Edna, rather than her husband.
The next morning, Mr. Pontellier gives Edna “half of the money which he had brought away from Klein’s hotel”-perhaps gambling winnings. She accepts the money gladly, thinking she will use it to buy a wedding present for her younger sister, Janet. But Mr. Pontellier dismisses that idea with a laugh and a promise to do better for Janet (that is, presumably, to spend more money, more of his money). Having said good-bye to his family, he leaves to return to his business in New Orleans. He sends Edna a box of treats. The ladies of Grand Isle declare Edna’s husband to be “the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier [is] forced to admit that she knew of none better”-the narrator’s ironic statement does not close off the possibility that better husbands and, indeed, better lives may, in fact, exist!
The Awakening Summary – Part 4
The narrator begins this chapter with a reflection on Mr. Pontellier’s stated dissatisfaction with Edna, from his point of view. While he cannot precisely define the deficiency, it boils down to this: “Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman.” In other words, she is not among the women-abundant that summer at Grand Isle- who “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” The narrator may be alluding to the image of the caged bird in Chapter I; certainly, we have here a direct statement that Edna does not define herself solely or even primarily in terms of her family. As readers will see, Edna will discover within herself a desire to “grow wings”-that is, to experience freedom-in other ways.
The narrator proceeds to contrast Edna with Adele Ratignolle, “the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm.” Readers learn that Adele must be perpetually pregnant, for “[a]bout every two years she had a baby.” Madame Ratignolle spends her afternoons sitting with Edna.
On the afternoon in which Mr. Pontellier’s package arrives, Adele has enlisted Edna to cut out the pattern for winter garments designed to protect Adele’s children from “treacherous drafts . . . and insidious currents of deadly cold”-a hyperbole which perfectly captures the “mother hen”-like attitude Edna does not herself share. Nor does she share the “entire absence of prudery” that she notes among the Creoles with whom she is spending time, including Robert Lebrun. Edna, for example, reads in private a book which the others at Grand Isle read and discuss openly. The Creole freedom of expression will, by the book’s end, affect Edna in much more dramatic ways.
The Awakening Summary – Part 5
The narrator informs readers that young Robert Lebrun has, since he was a boy, devoted his attentions to a different woman each summer at Grand Isle: “Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow; but as often as not it was some interesting married woman.” One of those “interesting married women” had been Adele Ratignolle. The trio discusses Robert’s affections toward Madame Ratignolle, and Edna cannot tell how serious or frivolous those affections were. She is only relieved that Robert has not acted in similar fashion toward her.
Edna, who is an amateur artist, longs to sketch Adele. That afternoon, Madame Ratignolle seems like a particularly “tempting subject,” looking as she does as “some sensuous Madonna.” The narrator remarks twice in this chapter that Edna envisions Adele in this way. At this point in the story, then, Adele represents a female ideal to which Edna aspires, and of which her Victorian-era society approves. By the end of the novel, Edna will aspire to a much different feminine ideal, an ideal greeted with far less enthusiasm by her society.
As Edna attempts to sketch Madame Ratignolle, Robert leans his head against her arm. At first, Edna tries to push him away; when Robert persists, Edna relents, assuming that no harm is being done, and that the gesture signifies nothing serious. When she completes the portrait, she discovers, with dismay, that it does not resemble Adele. She defaces and destroys the picture-perhaps a symbolic anticipation of her later, explicit rejection of the conventional, acceptable “mother-woman” ideal.
Edna’s children enter the room. Edna tries to talk to them, but they are interested only in the bonbons sent by their father. A few moments later, Edna watches with awe and envy as Adele’s children run to meet her, clinging at her skirts.
Robert asks Edna if she is going swimming again-although, as the narrator states, “[i]t was not so much a question as a reminder.” Although Edna at first tries to beg off, she can resist neither Robert’s repeated request nor the seductive call of the Gulf. The Sea’s voice is described as “a loving but imperative entreaty.” Robert urges her on: “The water must be delicious; it will not hurt you.” In view of the story’s conclusion, his comments will take on an ironic edge.
The Awakening Summary – Part 6
In this chapter, the narrator reports the beginning of a shift in Edna’s self-awareness: “A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,-the light which, showing the way, forbids it.” As other students of The Awakening (such as Sandra M. Gilbert) have noted, Chopin’s book contains a strong Edenic motif, and this short chapter reveals an example of that motif. Edna is gaining knowledge of “her position in the universe as a human being,” and that knowledge is at once freeing and forbidden. Like Eve eating forbidden fruit, Edna is experiencing the opening of her eyes: not to knowledge of sin, but to knowledge of an experience which her society would label “sin,” an experience of herself as a true individual-not a “mother-woman,” defined solely by her biological and marital attachments. The narrator evokes the book of Genesis itself in referring to Edna’s gradually dawning epiphany as “the beginning . . . of a world.” A further allusion to the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1 surfaces when this interior drama is juxtaposed with the external drama of the “never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring” call of the sea. As the Holy Spirit brooded over the watery chaos of Creation (see Gen. 1:2), so has the “Holy Ghost” now imparted “perhaps more wisdom” to the newly chaotic inner life of Edna, inspired (as we will see more fully in the next chapter) by her proximity to the sea.
The Awakening Summary – Part 7
The narrator reports that Edna, from childhood, has understood “the dual life-that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” During this summer at Grand Isle, Edna is gradually loosening that exterior, conforming life. As an example, we see Edna and Adele going to the beach together for a stroll near the water. Edna has successfully persuaded Adele to leave her children behind, though Adele insists on bringing some needlework along. The narrator provides lengthy physical descriptions of the two women which establish them as foils (contrasting characters) for one another: again, Adele the ideal “mother-woman”; Edna, a woman who, while unconventional in appearance (“there was no suggestion of the trim, stereotyped fashion-plate about it”), possesses “noble beauty” and “graceful severity” which separate her from others. Very few other people are at the beach so early in the morning. A woman dressed in black and reading devotional literature is there, as are a pair of lovers talking sweetly to each other in the empty children’s tent.
The sight of the sea and the feel of the hot wind on the beach remind Edna “of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean” in her home state of Kentucky. Edna recalls walking through the tall grass on a Sunday, “running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of.” Adele asks Edna if she has always been running away from prayers. Edna replies that she has been religious, but, upon reflection, decides she has been “driven along by habit.” Clearly, she feels more truly spiritual now, on Grand Isle, where she feels once more like the girl she was, “unthinking and unguided,” wandering through the ocean of Kentucky grass.
Edna proceeds to reflect on various relationships throughout her life. She thinks of her younger sister, Janet, with whom she habitually argued. She thinks of her older sister, Margaret, who is “matronly and dignified,” having been forced to act as the woman of the household when their mother died. Edna realizes that all of her female friends have been reserved in temperament. She recalls having crushes on “a dignified and sad-eyed cavalry officer” in Kentucky, and on a young gentleman in Mississippi. Both of these men “went the way of dreams,” evaporating out of her life. As a grown young woman, she was enamored of a tragedian (actor in tragedies), whose framed portrait she kept on her desk. When alone, she would “[kiss] the cold glass passionately.” Note the increasing distance between Edna and the objects of her affection: from reserved friendships to infatuations with older men barely aware of her, to a tragedian with whom no real relationship could ever exist.
Edna considers her marriage to Mr. Pontellier a mistake. His “absolute devotion” when courting her led Edna to believe they would be a good match. She proved to be wrong. In fact, she married her husband out of rebellion against her father and Margaret, who opposed the union. All of her dream relationships gone, Edna “found herself face to face with the realities” of married life. She grew fond of her husband, and fond of their children, but felt a “sort of relief” in their absence, which she did not admit to herself.
Although Edna does not share all of this interior reflection with Adele, the honesty “muddle[s] her like wine, or like the first breath of freedom.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 8
As Robert escorts Madame Ratignolle back to the house from the beach, she asks him to leave Edna alone: “She is not one of us … She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.” Madame Ratignolle has thus articulated one of the central questions of the book: Where does Edna fit in? To what world does she truly belong? Later, as Robert sits with his mother, conversing with her over the clatter of her sewing machine, he learns that Montel-a man who wishes to take Monsieur Lebrun’s place in the family-will be in Vera Cruz at the beginning of the next month, and invites Robert to join him, should he still wish to do so. Robert seems upset that his mother has not relayed this news to him before now.
The Awakening Summary – Part 9
On a Saturday night, an “unusual number” of men have returned to Grand Isle to spend the weekend with their families, who are entertaining them with a grand dinner. The entertainment at the dinner, however, is far from unusual: “the Farival twins”-who are dressed in “the Virgin’s colors, blue and white, having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin at their baptism”-play music on the piano that they have played many times before, prompting wrathful remarks from the parrot of Chapter I. A brother and sister, similarly, present speeches “which everyone present had heard many times . . . .” Madame Ratignolle plays waltzes to which all present dance; she says she plays music “on account of the children”-a further highlight of her status as the Victorian domestic ideal.
As the evening of conventional entertainments wears on, Robert asks Edna if she would like to hear Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. The narrator describes this new character as “a disagreeable little woman” who has “a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.” The description is ironic because Edna, like Mademoiselle Reisz, will begin to assert herself more as the novel continues. Edna’s connection to Reisz is hinted at when she responds to the woman’s playing of the piano with visceral emotion. When listening to Madame Ratignolle play, Edna had envisioned images “of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair.” When Mademoiselle Reisz plays, however, Edna feels the emotions themselves, in powerful ways. Edna is so shaken that she cannot respond to Reisz’ comment that she is “the only one worth playing for.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 10
Upon Robert’s suggestion, the Pontelliers and Ratignolles join him for a nighttime swim. Edna, who has previously regarded the ocean with apprehension and who has been trying all summer to learn how to swim, now joyously enters the waves, “boldly and with over-confidence.” While the others think they are responsible for bringing Edna to this new embrace of the ocean, Edna realizes that she would have been able to enjoy the water long before, had she but allowed herself to feel such freedom. Rather than swimming with the others, she swims out alone, “reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” Although she experiences a “quick vision of death” when she swims out a distance she feels is too far from the others (but which both the narrator and Mr. Pontellier say is not really too far at all), she successfully returns to land. She confides in Robert, as they return to the house ahead of the others, that she wonders if she will ever again feel as moved as she was this night by Mademoiselle Reisz’ piano playing. Robert tells her that this night, August 28th, is an enchanted night in which a spirit who haunts the Gulf of Mexico “seeks some one mortal worthy to hold him company . . . . [and] to-night he found Mrs. Pontellier.” Edna rests in a hammock upon their return to the house; Robert stays with her until the others return. They do not speak, but the narrator tells us those silent moments are full of “the first-felt throbbings of desire.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 11
Mr. Pontellier is surprised to find Edna still outside when he returns from escorting Madame Lebrun home. In a small but no doubt significant exchange-considering the events of the evening, and the novel’s title-her distant and unperceiving husband asks her, “Are you asleep?” Edna, with eyes “bright and intense,” definitively replies, “No.” Although he asks her to come in to the house with him, she refuses, and remains outside, exercising her own will. As if trying to outlast his wife, Mr. Pontellier smokes cigar after cigar next to her. Gradually, Edna succumbs to her need for sleep. She feels “like one who awakens gradually out of a . . . delicious, grotesque, impossible dream . . . .” As described in Chapter VII, then, Edna is once again undergoing what might be called a “negative” “awakening”-an “awakening” to the realities of her present life-as opposed to the “positive” awakening to new possibilities and her own self-direction, to which the nighttime swim began to expose her. As if to underscore her failure to “awaken” to herself, the chapter ends with a scene of tables being turned: as Edna goes in, she asks her husband if he will be joining her. He says he will, as soon as he has finished his last cigar. While the narrator does not record Mr. Pontellier’s tone of voice, the comments seem almost scornful, mockingly echoing Edna’s earlier self-assertion.
The Awakening Summary – Part 12
On Sunday morning, Edna, after a brief and fitful sleep, sends word to Robert that she is going to the Cheniere-a marshland area near Grand Isle that, according to Robert Looper in The Cheniere Caminada Story (Blue Herron Press, 1993), was home to a multi-national, French-speaking fishing community -to celebrate Mass. As he accompanies her and others to the boat which will take them across to the Cheniere, Robert speaks with “a young barefooted Spanish girl” named Mariequita. Edna notices Mariequita, which prompts Mariequita to ask Robert if she (that is, Edna) is Robert’s sweetheart. Rather than denying it, Robert only responds, “She’s a married lady, and has two children.” The narrator thus lets readers know that Robert is well aware of his ability to create the difficult situations that Madame Ratignolle anticipated in Chapter VIII! True to form, then, Robert suggests-notably, “in a low voice,” as if conspiratorially-to Edna that the two of them go to Grand Terre (an island in southeast Louisiana) the following day. Edna gazes toward Grand Terre in the distance and thinks “she would like to be alone there with Robert . . .” Truth be told, Edna is already feeling distant from her husband and the others; the voyage to the Cheniere makes her feel “as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast . . .” This image of liberation continues to develop the central theme of the novel: Edna’s self-discovery, which equates to her freedom from the conventions of her society. Edna’s desire for freedom is seen in a subtle remark: when Robert suggests that the two of them should, after Grand Terre, go fishing in the Bayou Brulow, Edna declines. She states they should instead go back to Grand Terre and “[l]et the fish alone.” As with the caged parrot, the image of a fish being caught, even though it appears only briefly, suggests the entrapment from which Edna will escape.
The Awakening Summary – Part 13
During the Mass at the Cheniere, a “feeling of oppression and drowsiness” overcomes Edna. A lack of freedom, a lack of “awakening”-these reactions drive Edna from the service, followed by Robert. He takes her to the cottage of Madame Antoine, where Edna is welcomed with gracious hospitality. Edna takes a long, refreshing nap, after which she-alone-eats “a crusty brown loaf” and drinks from “a bottle of wine” which have been prepared on a table for her. This meal, and not the stifling ceremony of the church, is Edna’s Mass (anticipating her “last supper” in Chapter XXX). She joins Robert, “who did not know she was awake”-a significant phrase, for Edna seems to be realizing the same thing for herself. She asks Robert, “How many years have I slept?” In its immediate context, the question refers, of course, to Edna’s afternoon slumber; on a larger level, however, the question is one of the central ones in the novel: How long has Edna “slept,” lulled by the conventions of life, religious and otherwise? How much of her life has passed her by, and what will she do now that she is finally awakening? How will others react? We gain a hint of the answer to the last question when Robert informs Edna that the rest of the party returned home, having discovered her asleep and thinking it “best not to wake [her].” No doubt, for Edna’s “awakening” challenges the norms of their world. Edna is waking up into a world of her own, where-as but one example-a solitary meal with Eucharistic overtones offers truer worship (but not of any conventional god) than the officially sanctioned Mass. Robert serves Edna broiled fish-another religious echo: the risen Christ shared a breakfast of broiled fish by the sea with his disciples (John 21:9-14; cf. Luke 24:41-43). As Edna and Robert prepare to leave the Cheniere in the boat belonging to Madame Antoine’s son Tonie, the narrator tells readers that “misty spirit forms were prowling in the shadows” and “upon the water were phantom ships”-details which reinforce our growing understanding that, slowly but surely, Edna is leaving this world for another, more spiritual one. Through such attention to language and allusive detail, Chopin perhaps hopes to foster an “awakening” in her readers which mirrors Edna’s own.
The Awakening Summary – Part 14
While Edna has been at the Cheniere entering into this new world, however, the old world has been very much with those who returned earlier in the day. For instance, Edna’s youngest son, Etienne, caused difficulty for Madame Ratignolle (ironically, as established in Chapter V, the consummate maternal figure!) when he refused to go to bed. Mr. Pontellier had returned to Klein’s hotel, for-unlike his wife-“he detested above all things to be left alone.” When Robert leaves Edna for the night, she cannot understand why. She only knows that she is not sleepy, and she does not think he is, either. Her feelings of regret at his departure are perhaps a hint of future trouble in their relationship; readers sense that, at some level, the relationship means something to Edna that it does not to Robert. At any rate, she contents herself as she waits for her husband to return by singing a song Robert taught her, a song in which every verse ends with the ominous words, “si tu savais”-if you knew . . . If only Mr. Pontellier knew the transformation his wife was undergoing? If only Robert knew Edna’s feelings about their budding relationship? If only Edna knew where her awakening would lead? The reader is left to wonder.
The Awakening Summary – Part 15
One evening at dinner, Edna is surprised to learn that Robert plans to leave Grand Isle that night for Mexico. This revelation reinforces Edna’s sense of isolation from the rest of society; while others at the table prattle on about Mexico, she herself has nothing to say or think about the country, and wonders “if they had all gone mad.” When Edna leaves the table and does not return, Madame Ratignolle goes to see what is the matter; however, she does not offer Edna much comfort, and leaves her rather quickly, “being in truth rather desirous of joining in the general and animated conversation which was still in progress concerning Mexico and the Mexicans.”
Edna expresses her displeasure to Robert before he leaves. She says she had planned on being with him for some time. In an unguarded moment, Robert says he had made the same plans, and adds, “Perhaps that’s the-” before catching himself. When he says good-bye to Edna, he addresses her formally as “my dear Mrs. Pontellier.” The phrase sounds like a written salutation and, in fact, Edna immediately requests that Robert correspond with her. He makes a half-hearted promise to do so. As Robert departs, Edna tearfully recognizes her infatuation with him, the same feelings of infatuation she has felt for various men in years past. This emotional recognition leads her to conclude that the past offers no valuable lesson, and the future remains unknown: “The present alone was significant,” tormenting her with the knowledge that “she had been denied that which her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded.” Perhaps Chopin is ironically employing the Carpe diem (Latin, “seize the day”) motif common in much (especially romantic) literature: while the motif is usually used as an argument for romantic love in the present moment, here it pushes Edna into realizing how she has failed to “seize the day,” and seems to inspire her resolve not to make the same mistake again, as later chapters will bear out.
The Awakening Summary – Part 16
The summer at Grand Isle is drawing to an end. Edna has learned how to swim-“a diversion which afforded her the only real pleasurable moments that she knew” in the wake of Robert’s departure. One of the ways in which Edna has been coping with Robert’s absence is by looking at his family’s photographs with Madame Lebrun, who has received a letter from her son. Edna asks to see the letter. She scrutinizes it in great detail, hoping to find in it a message for her. She finds none, and is envious of Madame Lebrun, for Robert wrote to his mother but not to her.
Even Mr. Pontellier knows that Edna misses Robert, and asks how she is handling his leaving. He does not seem at all jealous or suspicious, however-another indication that, unlike his wife, he is not “awakened.” Indeed, he tells Edna that he shared a drink and a smoke with Robert in New Orleans before Robert left for Mexico. They discussed Robert’s business plans-not Edna. Mr. Pontellier clearly does not know the truth of his wife’s inner, emotional life any more than he knows the truth of his own.
Edna recalls a conversation she had with Madame Ratignolle-the archetypal “mother-woman” herself-in which she told Adele that she, Edna, would never sacrifice herself for her children. When Adele objected, Edna clarified: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself.” This notable distinction between physical life and true self signals an important question in The Awakening: What is “essential” to the “self”? The whole story chronicles Edna’s attempts to answer that question for herself. She will not accept any outside authority’s answer, not even the answers of organized religion: Adele tells her that no woman could do more than give her life for her children, because “your Bible tells you so.” Edna responds that one can, in fact, do more-this self-sacrifice that is more than a laying down of one’s physical life; seemingly, an act of self-denial and self-annihilation that Edna is unwilling to commit. Perhaps readers could draw a distinction between physical and spiritual suicide-a distinction that may bear on one’s interpretation of the novel’s conclusion.
At the beach one morning, Mademoiselle Reisz informs Edna that, contrary to what Edna had believed, Robert was not his mother’s favorite son. That honor belonged to Robert’s brother Victor. Edna learns from Mademoiselle Reisz that Robert and Victor came to blows a year or two previously over a Spanish girl named Mariequita (whom we first glimpsed in Chapter XII): Victor “considered that he had some sort of claim upon” Mariequita (in much the same way that Mr. Pontellier believes himself to possess a claim upon Edna?), and when he saw Mariequita “talking to the girl, or walking with her, or bathing with her, or carrying her basket-I don’t remember what” (note the ambiguous nature of Robert and Mariequita’s relationship, mirroring the ambiguity of his relationship to Edna, an ambiguity of which Robert is aware, given his comments in Chapter XII), the two brothers fought over her. Ironically, Mademoiselle Reisz concludes her story by claiming that Mariequita, and not Robert, is to blame; compare this conclusion with Madame Ratignolle’s cautionary statements to Robert at the beginning of Chapter VIII, the warning that Edna might take him seriously.
Interestingly, Edna considers Mademoiselle Reisz’ statements to be “venom,” as if she is unwilling to see the truth about Robert. Instead, she returns to swimming “with an abandon that thrilled and invigorated her.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 17
One Tuesday night a few weeks after returning to New Orleans from Grand Isle, the Pontelliers are at home, where Mr. Pontellier asks Edna about the visitors he assumes she has received that day, Tuesday having been her day to welcome callers, a “programme . . . [she] had religiously followed since her marriage, six years before.” To her husband’s surprise, Edna was out for the day and did not receive anyone. He is upset at this change of routine, and is further upset when he learns that she left no explanation for those who visited: “[P]eople don’t do such things,” he tells her, “we’ve got to observe les convenances [the “suitabilities,” or conventions] if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession.” Here we have an explicit statement of Mr. Pontellier’s desire for conformity, at odds with his wife’s increasing desire for self-expression and self-actualization. He reviews the visitors’ calling cards and, noting his business and social contacts (or lack thereof) with each one, he tries to impress upon Edna that “such things count.” When he proceeds to complain about the meal their cook has prepared, he tells Edna that cooks “need looking after, like any other class of persons that you employ.” Readers cannot help but wonder if Mr. Pontellier, even subconsciously, includes Edna in such a category (e.g., his evaluation of her as a damaged piece of property in Chapter I). Mr. Pontellier leaves to eat dinner at his social club.
Unhappy and angry, Edna forces herself to finish her dinner, then paces the dining room, listening to the night sounds outside and their “mournful notes without promise, devoid even of hope.” She takes off her wedding ring, throwing it to the carpet and trampling on it. She breaks a glass vase in her rage. The maid who cleans up the broken glass finds Edna’s ring and returns it to her. Edna puts her ring back on. The scene thus represents this stage of Edna’s “awakening”: she seems to know she does not belong in a world of les conveniences, including her all-too conventional marriage, but she does not yet know how to leave that world for another.
The Awakening Summary – Part 18
Edna’s sense of being a stranger in her own world is reinforced when, standing on the front veranda of her house the next morning, she feels “no interest in anything about her.” Her surroundings, even her children, are all “part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic.”
Edna goes to visit Madame Ratignolle, whom she finds engaged in the domestic duty of sorting laundry, even though a servant “can do it as well as I.” Edna, who has brought some sketches she feels are unsatisfactory with her, expresses a desire to paint Adele’s picture some day. Is this statement, perhaps, as close as Edna can come to expressing a desire which she believes she ought to feel, but does not, to emulate Adele’s domestic happiness? Edna herself uses the language of obligation-“I believe I ought to work again” (emphasis added)-strange vocabulary to use when speaking of a hobby, presumably pursued for pleasure! Even as she asks Adele for her opinion, Edna knows it will “be next to valueless.” And while Edna is pleased by Madame Ratignolle’s praise of her work, she nevertheless leaves most of it with her.
When Mr. Ratignolle returns for dinner, Edna dines with them. At first, she compares the Ratignolle’s home life to her own by thinking of Proverbs 15:17: “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith” (KJV). To her surprise, she finds the actual meal quite satisfying. But she does not leave the Ratignolles with a longing for the “domestic harmony” they have: “It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui.” So far from feeling envious of Adele, which she had hoped she might, Edna feels nothing but pity.
The Awakening Summary – Part 19
Edna entirely abandons her Tuesday ritual, and begins to indulge whatever whim strikes her fancy. Neither does she back down in the face of her husband’s anger; indeed, “[s]he had resolved never to take another step backward.” Mr. Pontellier eventually leaves Edna alone, as she requests. She works on her art, but does not find it fulfilling. She alternates between being happy and unhappy, but without knowing why. No accident, then, that she finds herself singing “si tu savais”-if you knew (see Chapter XIV).
The Awakening Summary – Part 20
On one of her unhappy days, Edna visits Mademoiselle Reisz. She has trouble locating her, and learns that her former neighbors are glad to see her gone. This news only increases Edna’s desire to see Mademoiselle Riesz. Edna decides to ask Madame Lebrun where the woman may be found. Victor-who is visiting from Grand Isle, where he lives-welcomes Edna into the Lebruns’ home, and begins to tell her about his flirtations with a young woman. Edna finds the young man’s tale amusing, but his mother’s entrance into the room cuts the story short. Edna learns that Robert has written twice since his departure; when Edna reads the letters, she finds no message for or about her in them, as before (see Chapter XVI). Madame Lebrun gives a despondent Edna Mademoiselle Reisz’ address. As Edna leaves, Victor remarks to his mother that Edna “doesn’t seem like the same woman” she was over the summer.
The Awakening Summary – Part 21
Mademoiselle Reisz seems pleasantly surprised to receive Edna as a visitor: “I had said to myself, ‘Ah, bah! she will never come.'” She tells Edna she does not think that Edna likes her; Edna replies that she does not know whether she likes Mademoiselle Reisz or not. As they share coffee, Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna that she has received a letter from Robert-a letter all about Edna. However, she refuses to let Edna see the letter, because it was not addressed to her. She asks Edna to tell her something about herself; Edna replies that she wants to be an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz responds that a successful artist “must possess the courageous soul . . . . The soul that dares and defies.” Edna responds that she at least has persistence, and asks to see the letter again. Stating that Edna has “captivated” her, Mademoiselle Reisz relents. As Edna reads, Mademoiselle Reisz plays an Impromptu by composer Frederick Chopin (1810-1849). The music seems to mirror Edna’s emotions of “soulful and poignant longing.”
This chapter concludes by drawing readers’ attention to the liminal (or transitional) state in which Edna now exists. As she leaves Mademoiselle Reisz’ home, Edna is weeping as she did “one midnight”-notably, the hour at which one day transforms into the next-on Grand Isle, “when strange, new voices awoke in her.” She pauses at the “threshold” of the house-a liminal location, often revelatory in literature-to ask if she might come again. Mademoiselle Reisz assures her she may, but she adds, with words readers will recognize as more significant than the characters know, “Be careful . . . don’t stumble.” She is referring, on the literal level, to the stairs to her apartment, but she might as well be referring to the journey of self-expression on which Edna is about to embark.
The Awakening Summary – Part 22
While in New Orleans one morning, Mr. Pontellier visits Dr. Mandelet, his friend and family physician. Pontellier expresses his concerns about Edna to the doctor: “She’s odd; she’s not like herself . . . . Her whole attitude-toward me and everybody and everything-has changed.” We learn that Edna is refusing to go to her sister Janet’s wedding (see Chapter III), since she now believes that “a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth.” Mandelet advises Pontellier to leave Edna alone for the time being. He attributes Edna’s odd behavior to “some passing whim . . . which you and I needn’t try to fathom.” He promises to stop and see Edna on the following Thursday. After Pontellier leaves, Mandelet reflects that he would have liked to have asked, “Is there any man in the case?”, but refrained, deferring to les convenances of Creole society.
The Awakening Summary – Part 23
Edna’s father-“the Colonel”-has come to New Orleans to buy a gift for Janet’s approaching wedding and stays with the Pontelliers. Although Edna has not been close to him, his visit “furnish[es] a new direction for emotions.” Much to his delight-for he has a high opinion of the great potential he gave to his offspring-Edna sketches him. She also takes him to a musical party at the Ratignolles’, where Madame Ratignolle flirts with him-also to his great delight. The Colonel keeps Edna busy attending to him, and Edna finds that it “amused her to do so.” Mr. Pontellier mistakes her attentions to her father as “a deep filial attachment,” when in fact Edna seems to be exploring her newly awakened emotions in a new way, as if she is trying on another role for herself.
Doctor Mandelet dines with the family and notices the change in Edna of which her husband spoke: she reminds him “of some beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun.” As part of the after-dinner entertainment, Mandelet tells a story about a woman whose love grows restless, “seeking strange, new channels, only to return to its legitimate source . . . .” For her part, Edna tells the story of a woman who sails away with a lover, never to return. Although she makes up the story, her listeners accept it as truth, so convincing is her delivery of it. Mandelet regrets attending the dinner. He does not want to become involved in the intimate, domestic dramas of his patients. He hopes that Alcee Arobin is not the other man in Edna’s life.
The Awakening Summary – Part 24
Edna and the Colonel argue over Edna’s refusal to attend Janet’s wedding; Edna is glad when her father leaves. Mr. Pontellier goes with him. The Colonel advises him to be firmer with Edna: “Put your foot down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife.” The narrator tells us that the Colonel “had coerced his own wife into her grave.”
Although Edna at first reacts to her husband’s impending departure with affectionate attention-significantly, “quite as Madame Ratignolle would have done”-she soon enjoys the “radiant peace” and relief of being alone (her children are with their grandmother in Iberville). Edna uses her solitude to rediscover her house and garden. She enjoys a meal by herself, embarks on an ambitious reading program, and bathes. This chapter thus establishes the difference between the stifling isolation Edna has suffered to this point, and the liberating solitude she now experiences.
The Awakening Summary – Part 25
Edna goes to the horse races with Alcee Arobin (see Dr. Mandelet’s concern in Chapter XXIII), a “young [man] of fashion” who much admires her. Edna finds the races exciting as she bets large sums of money and captures the attention of fellow race-goers, eager for “the elusive but ever-desired ‘tip.'” After the races, Edna dines with Arobin and the Highcamps, a socially well-to-do but personally dull couple who, for instance, cannot understand why their daughter-whom Mrs. Highcamp uses to meet men such as Arobin-chose a Dante reading over the race track. Perhaps the Highcamps represent a further critique of les convenances.
Arobin escorts Edna home. Edna, far from being tired, is eager for “something to happen.” A notable detail tells the reader that, while the Highcamps’ dinner was “of excellent quality, [it] had lacked abundance,” and Edna still finds herself hungry-surely, a hunger to be understood metaphorically as well as literally. Edna regrets allowing Arobin to leave her. However, she and Arobin spend an afternoon together a few days later. The two quickly become close, but Edna eventually asks him to leave, protesting that she does not like him, even though she knows her words lack “dignity and sincerity.” Arobin apologizes for being misled by his emotions, and leaves after casting “one last appealing glance at her, to which she [makes] no response.” The narrator informs us that Arobin’s manner “was so genuine that it often deceived even himself,” leaving us to wonder how true his feelings for Edna are-and reminding us, again, of Madame Ratignolle’s caution to Robert in Chapter VIII. Is Alcee Arobin, like Robert, one of those men who mislead women? For her part, Edna experiences feelings of guilt regarding her near infidelity. But she feels she has been unfaithful, not to her husband, but to Robert.
The Awakening Summary – Part 26
Arobin writes an apologetic note to Edna, which only adds to her emotional confusion-“the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.” She and Arobin continue to see each other. Her visits with Mademoiselle Reisz, however, calm her troubled spirit, for Reisz, readers are told, seems to reach Edna’s spirit “and set it free.” During one such visit, Edna announces that she is moving out of her home, into a smaller house around the corner. While she at first says her large, current home is too much to care for, Reisz presses Edna until she admits her real reason for moving: “It is a caprice.” Edna has not told Mr. Pontellier of her plan; she assumes he will think she is “demented.” Reisz says that Edna’s reasons are still not clear to her; the narrator tells us that the reasons are not fully clear to Edna, either. She does know, however, that the move symbolizes a break with her husband. “[W]hatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.” Edna tells Reisz that she (Edna) will be hosting “a grand dinner” before the move.
Reisz produces a letter from Robert, in which he writes that he is returning to New Orleans. This news excites Edna, who admits to Reisz that she loves Robert-a fact of which, of course, Reisz and the readers are already well aware. The moment’s significance lies in the fact that it is the first time Edna has honestly admitted her love for Robert to herself. Cheered greatly by Robert’s impending return, Edna sends a box of bonbons for her children and writes “a charming letter” to Mr. Pontellier telling him of her move.
The Awakening Summary – Part 27
That evening, as he strokes her hair, Edna tells Arobin about a comment Mademoiselle Reisz made comparing Edna to a weak bird, “exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” Edna claims to only “half comprehend” what Reisz meant. When Arobin responds that he has heard that Reisz is “partially demented,” Edna responds that she thinks the pianist is “wonderfully sane.” This question of sanity was introduced in the previous chapter as Edna wondered about Mr. Pontellier’s response to her plan to move. It is, of course, a question with which the novel is greatly occupied: Is Edna sane to acquiesce to les convenances of her society, or is she sane to remain true to her own, awakening nature? When she kisses Arobin, the narrator tells us it is “the first kiss of [Edna’s] life to which her nature had really responded.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 28
After Arobin leaves, Edna cries. This paragraph-long chapter explores her conflicted emotional reaction to the kiss, but the emotion that dominates is “understanding” of herself-a resolution to the question Edna contemplated in the previous chapter, “what character of woman I am.” This note of “understanding” also harkens back to the book’s repeating musical motif: si tu savais-“if you knew.” Edna now does know who she is, and what life is, a “monster made up of beauty and brutality.” Two emotions Edna does not feel are shame and remorse. Her only regret is that the kiss which sparked this emotional revelation had not been the kiss of true love.
The Awakening Summary – Part 29
Without waiting for her husband’s opinion, Edna moves into her new house, feeling “like one who has entered and lingered within the portals of some forbidden temple in which a thousand muffled voices bade her begone”-an evocative description of the transgression against les convenances Edna feels she is committing. She takes with her to the new house everything that is truly hers, nothing which Mr. Pontellier acquired for her. Arobin visits her as she is working alongside her maid, preparing the house. He is alarmed to see her climbing a tall ladder: “Do you want to kill yourself?” he asks her, in a moment of foreshadowing. Significantly, he refers to the dinner Edna is planning as the coup d’etat. He recognizes it for the act of rebellion that it is.
The Awakening Summary – Part 30
The dinner scene in this chapter has, according to Chopin scholar Sandra Gilbert, “been ignored by many critics,” even though, in Gilbert’s view, it offers the key to understanding The Awakening as “a female fiction that . . . propose[s] a feminist myth of Aphrodite/Venus as an alternative to the patriarchal myth of Jesus” (Sandra M. Gilbert, “The Second Coming of Aphrodite,” Introduction, The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin [New York: Penguin Books, 1984] pp. 19, 20). Aphrodite, of course, is the Greek goddess born from the sea; and, as Gilbert notes, Edna in this chapter achieves a kind of divine status as she presides over her own “last supper” (albeit with ten instead of an “even dozen” guests [as the mother-woman Madame Ratignolle is “unpresentable”-understandably so, given the degree to which Edna has abandoned that ideal of womanhood-and Madame Lebrun sends regrets at the last moment]; compare the Eucharistic overtones of the solitary meal taken in Chapter XIII): her last supper in the old house where she lived in accordance with les convenances; her last supper before she leaves her old life behind entirely.
Notably, then, Edna admits to her dinner guests that the day is her birthday; she is twenty-nine-approximately the same age, or so tradition holds, of Jesus at his “last supper.” And as that enlightened Savior was to some degree isolated during his final meal, so is enlightened Edna-who, by her death, will “save” only herself-isolated. The narrator calls Edna “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.” Despite the congenial atmosphere of the dinner party, Edna again feels a despondent longing for “the unattainable,” as though in this world, whether she lives by les convenances or not, she can never find true happiness, true fulfillment. The narrator is setting the stage for the inevitable, mythic conclusion: as did Jesus, so Edna must leave this world.
Near the evening’s close, a strange incident occurs: Mrs. Highcamp drapes a floral garland and white, silk scarf over Victor. Another guest, Gouvernail, calls Victor “a graven image of Desire.” Victor begins to sing to Edna: “Ah! si tu savais!” He sings on, despite Edna’s protests, although he eventually stops once he realizes how truly upset the song makes her. Perhaps, given her feelings of isolation earlier in the evening, Edna is burdened by the fact that she finally does know-as Jesus knew at his last supper (see John 13:1; 17:16)-that she is not of this world.
The Awakening Summary – Part 31
Arobin stays with Edna after the other dinner guests leave. He helps her lock up the old house, and walks her to her new one. There, he lingers, not wanting to leave. The chapter’s conclusion implies that he and Edna spend the night together.
The Awakening Summary – Part 32
Mr. Pontellier writes his wife a letter in which he scolds her for her decision to move into the new house. Significantly, the narrator tells us that he is not worried about the appearance (let alone the reality) of scandal; he is worried, instead, about the state of his finances. Clearly, Mr. Pontellier has not grown beyond his opinion of Edna at the novel’s beginning. She is still, too him, merely an asset, a piece of personal property to be managed and controlled (despite Mandelet’s advice in Chapter XXII). In order to create a believable reason that they have moved out of their home, Mr. Pontellier arranges for the old house to be remodeled in their “temporary absence” from it. Edna, meanwhile, visits her children in Iberville. She seems to truly enjoy her time with them, but, upon her return to New Orleans, “the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone.”
The Awakening Summary – Part 33
Madame Ratignolle “drag[s] herself over” to Edna’s new home-a marvelous phrase, as if to signify that the ideal mother-woman cannot quite bring herself to stoop to a world of different feminine ideals. She laments that Edna has not recently been in contact with her. She warns Edna that Edna “seem[s] to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life.” She also tells Edna that Arobin’s visits to her (Edna) have become the subject of gossip: “Monsieur Ratignolle was telling me that his [that is, Arobin’s] attentions alone are considered enough to ruin a woman’s name.”
Edna visits Mademoiselle Reisz so frequently now she can let herself into the apartment if Reisz is not home. One afternoon, while she is in the apartment waiting for Reisz to return, Robert arrives. She learns, to her dismay, that he has returned to New Orleans “the day before yesterday”; she had imagined that Robert would seek her out immediately. Further, she learns that he has returned, not out of love for her, but because his business in Mexico proved unprofitable. Upset, Edna makes as if to leave. Robert leaves with her, following her to her new home, which makes Edna think that perhaps her fantasies will materialize after all. She attempts to persuade Robert to stay for dinner. Robert stays, but only reluctantly, and without any explicit commitment to sharing the meal with Edna. He is seemingly alarmed to find Arobin’s picture on Edna’s table. Perhaps this moment illustrates that Robert, too, is as much a captive of les convenances as anyone else in Edna’s world, a world to which she increasingly does not belong. Edna explains that she has been using Arobin’s picture in her artwork. She distracts Robert from further talk of Arobin by getting him to talk about himself instead. He confesses that he has been “working like a machine, and feeling like a lost soul”-a confession which Edna then echoes. No wonder she feels like a lost soul: even her beloved Robert, idealized in memory, is failing to sustain the awakening he once sparked, during that summer on Grand Isle.
The Awakening Summary – Part 34
Before dinner, Edna presses Robert for information about his time in Mexico, especially information about the women he met there. He seems reluctant to tell her much; for example, in response to Edna’s question about a girl in Vera Cruz who gave him a tobacco pouch, he says, “There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon the water,” while refusing to confirm whether that girl-and surely, by extension, Edna herself-belongs to “that order and kind.” Arobin arrives, carrying a message that a Mrs. Merriman’s card party has been postponed due to her child’s sickness; he and Robert exchange pleasantries. Arobin remarks that he found the women during his stay in Mexico to be “stunning.” Perhaps to avoid an awkward moment, Robert departs. Arobin asks if Edna would like to do anything that evening; Edna says she would not. Before Arobin leaves, he tells Edna that he is alive only when near her. When Edna asks whether Arobin says that to many women, he confesses that he does, “but I don’t think I ever came so near meaning it”-clearly, not a response for which Edna had been hoping: when he smiles at Edna, her eyes possess only “a dreamy, absent look.” Her “stupor” continues after Arobin leaves, as Edna imagines “a transcendently seductive vision of a Mexican girl” who causes her to feel jealousy. She decides that Robert was nearer to her in Mexico than he is, now, back in New Orleans.
The Awakening Summary – Part 35
By the next morning, Edna feels again that Robert really does love her. As Chopin’s writing in this passage makes clear, however, the Robert who loves Edna is only the Robert of her imagination. He does not come to see her that day. Arobin continues to visit her, sensing as he does-but misunderstanding, since he thinks it is directed at him-“the latent sensuality” awakening within her. The chapter ends in sharp contrast to the way it began: she falls asleep feeling no despondency, and wakes up in the morning feeling no hope. Readers sense that Edna’s realization that Robert who loves her is a fiction of her own making leaves Edna with a sense of emptiness.
The Awakening Summary – Part 36
While eating dinner one afternoon in a suburban garden, Edna’s and Robert’s paths cross again. Her former resolve to be reserved when seeing him again almost immediately evaporates; she asks him why he has been avoiding her. Robert protests that she is “so personal” and “cruel,” forcing him to give her excuses. He does, however, escort her back to her house, where she kisses him. He responds, saying that he has been fighting his love for her. He says he thought of Edna during his entire time in Mexico; Edna reminds him that he never wrote to her, a reminder to which Robert does not directly respond. Instead, he points to her married status as the reason why he never dared express his dream that she might become his wife. Edna informs him that he has been “a very, very foolish boy,” for she is “no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions” (recall again the narrator’s comment in Chapter III). Interestingly, Robert reacts to the news of Edna’s newfound freedom with seeming alarm-an indication, perhaps, that he did not expect Edna to take him at his word.
At any rate, their conversation is interrupted when Celestine, Edna’s servant, brings word that Madame Ratignolle is ill and requests Edna’s presence. Before she leaves, Edna declares her love to Robert. She asks him to wait for her until she gets back. The narrator comments that Robert has been “deprived . . . of every impulse but the longing to hold her and keep her.” The narrator is employing irony: while Edna has just declared her freedom from all such notions of being “held” and “kept” as one keeps property or possessions, Robert’s dreams of Edna are couched in just such language. Readers may sense that neither Robert nor Edna’s futures are likely to be as bright as the characters imagine they will be, since those futures represent opposite views of Edna’s place in the world-a world which, we have been warned through narrative details (e.g., the “last supper” of Chapter XXX), Edna will (must?) soon be departing.
The Awakening Summary – Part 37
Edna’s visit to Madame Ratignolle seems to possess a near-revelatory quality. As the ailing, ideal mother-woman laments that she has been left alone (despite the many people, Edna among them, attending to her needs), Edna is “seized with a vague dread.” She recalls giving birth to one of her children: “a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go.” Ironically, then, when Edna kisses Madame Ratignolle good-bye-a farewell in more than the literal sense, a farewell to all that this character represents-the mother-woman adjures Edna, “Think of the children!” Edna is thinking of the children-and the thought does not bring her comfort or encouragement, but dread.
The Awakening Summary – Part 38
As together they leave Madame Ratignolle, Doctor Mandelet asks if Edna and Mr. Pontellier will be going abroad upon his return. Edna says she will not be forced to travel, or to do anything else she does not want to do. She wants to be left alone (as Mandelet intuitively grasped in Chapter XXII). “Nobody has any right-except children, perhaps-and even then, it seems to me-or it did seem-” Mandelet again displays his intuition as he makes sense out of Edna’s chaotic speech and thoughts: she, like all mothers before her, is experiencing the breakdown of her youthful illusions of freedom from responsibility to anyone but herself. Edna agrees, declaring that the past seems like a dream. She begins to express the hope that one might forever dream, but then resolves, “[P]erhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.” She says that all she wants is her own way, and indicates that she understands getting it means “trampl[ing] upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others . . . .” Mandelet urges her to come see him soon, since few others, in his judgment, would understand what Edna means.
As Edna enters her house, she, ironically, is picturing “no greater bliss on earth than possession of the beloved one,” Robert. The language is ironic because it is the language Edna has rejected, at least where she herself is concerned. On the other hand, perhaps the language is meant to suggest that, truly, “on earth” there can be no greater joy than “possession.” Again, as the narrative has been making increasingly clear since Edna’s “last supper” (Chapter XXX), Edna, since her awakening, does not and cannot belong here “on earth.”
Edna finds that Robert has not waited for her. He has left only a cryptic note: “I love you. Good-by-because I love you.” Edna goes to bed-but, significantly, she does not sleep. She is awake. She has been awakened. And so the stage is set for the final chapter.
The Awakening Summary – Part 39
Edna returns to Grand Isle, where she surprises Victor and Mariequita with her appearance; at first, the narrator tells us, they think she is “an apparition.” She asks when dinner will be served, and whether the menu will include fish. Given the establishment of Edna as a “Christ figure” in Chapter XXX, readers may remember that Christ’s disciples, on seeing him ask for fish, thought he was a ghost-but after his resurrection (Luke 24:37-43). This possible biblical allusion thus introduces ambiguity about the event that is about to follow: is Edna’s action a death or a resurrection, an apotheosis, an entrance to new life?
As she walks toward the beach, Edna reflects on her realization the night Robert had finally left her: “She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.” Edna views her children as “antagonists who had overcome her . . . . [and] sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days.” She realizes she wants no human being near her except Robert, but she also realizes that he, too, would someday be gone. She sees no fate for herself but solitude.
And so Edna at last fully answers the call of the sea, which invites “the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” Naked, she enters the water, without looking back. As she ventures out deeper and deeper, she thinks of the people in her life who simply do not understand . . . who do not know (“Ah! si tu savais!”). Her husband and children, while a part of her, do not know that they cannot claim her as their possession. Mademoiselle Reisz does not know that Edna does, in fact, possess “the courageous soul” an artist must have. Robert does not know the nature of her love. Perhaps only Mandelet would have known, but now it is too late to go and see him. Edna presses on into the Gulf, and she begins to experience the sights and sounds of her childhood, when the “illusions” of youth-of which she had spoken with Mandelet-were, in fact, reality.