Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 3 - Edna Pontellier Battles The Forces Without Only To Meet The Forces Within!
Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 3 - Edna Pontellier Battles The Forces Without Only To Meet The Forces Within!
Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. This is our third episode discussing Kate Chopin’s controversial novella, The Awakening. Week 1 we introduced Chopin, her life and the book itself. We talked about what a stir it made during her lifetime ultimately resulting in it being forgotten and then rediscovered midway through the 20th century. Last week, we spent all of our time on the vacation resort island of Grand Isle. We met Mr. ad Mrs. Pontellier, as well as the two women who represent got Edna, our protagonist, two alternating lifestyles. Edna Pontellier, we were quick to learn, is not a happily married woman. Her husband is outwardly kind to her, but readers are told outright that love and mutual respect was never part of the arrangement between these two. Edna is indulged by Mr. Pontellier, for sure. He gives her anything she wants in terms of money or material, but in exchange, she is his ornament, an expensive hobby, a pet even- something to be prized- or as Ibsen would describe it- a beautiful doll for his doll house.
The story starts in the summer at the vacation resort town of Grand Isle, Louisiana. While vacationing on the island, Edna Pontellier experiences what Chopin terms “the awakening”. She awakens to the understanding that she is not a pet or a doll in the doll house, and just like Nora in the The Doll’s House, she decides she really doesn’t want to be one anymore.
No, I guess if that were the only thing to this story, we’d have to say, Sorry Kate, Ibsen beat you by about 20 years. In Ibsen’s story, Nora awakens when her husband, Torvald, turns on her over money.
That’s a good point, what awakens Edna in this book is not a marital crisis over money. It is a crisis that awakens her, and it totally informs how she views her marriage, but it is a crisis concerning her husband at all that is the catalyst. She is awakened to her own humanity by discovering her own sensuality. I want to highlight that this awakening isn’t overtly sexually provoked. No man comes in and seduces Edna; she does not go off with a wild vacation crew. She is left vulnerable, if you want to think about it that way, because of loveless marriage, but she is sensually and emotionally provoked through three very different relationships- all of which affect her physically as well as emotionally. The first is with a Creole woman, Adele Ratigntole, one with a younger Creole man, Robert LeBrun, and the third with the provocative music of Madame Reisz. Experiences with these three awaken something in Edna that encourages maybe even forces her to rebel- rebel against her husband, against the culture, against the person she has always been, against the roles she has played, against everything that she has ever known.
The problem is- rebellion only takes you so far. You may know what you DON’T want, but does that help you understand what you DO? And this is Edna’s problem. Where do we go from here?
And so, in chapter 17, we return with the Pontellier’s to their home in New Orleans. And, as we have suggested before, New Orleans is not like any other city in America, and it is in these cultural distinctives of Creole life at the turn of the century that Chopin situates our protagonist. But before we can understand some of the universal and psychological struggles Chopin so carefully sketches for us, we need to understand a little of the culture of this time period and this unusual place. Garry, tell us a little about this world. What is so special about Esplanade Street?
Well, one need only Google tourism New Orleans and a description of Esplanade street will be in the first lists of articles you run into. Let me read the opening sentence from the travel website Neworleans.com
One of the quietest, most scenic and historic streets in New Orleans, Esplanade Avenue is a hidden treasure running through the heart of the city. From its beginning at the foot of the Mississippi River levee to its terminus at the entrance of City Park, Esplanade is a slow pace thoroughfare with quiet ambiance and local charm. According to this same website, Esplanade Street, during the days of Chopin, functioned as “millionaire row”- which, of course is why the Pontelliers live there.
It actually forms the border between the French Quarter and the less exclusive Faubourg Marigny. At the turn of the last century it was grand and it was populated by wealthy creoles who were building enormous mansions meant to compete with the mansions of the “Americans” on St. Charles Avenue.
Yes, that was the term for the non-Creole white people. The ones that descended from the British or came into New Orleans from other parts of the US.
Esplanade Street was life at its most grand- there is no suffering like you might find in other parts of New Orleans. The Pontelliers were wealthy; they were glamorous; these two were living competitively.
The first paragraph of chapter 17 calls the Pontellier mansion dazzling white. And the inside is just as dazzling as the outside. Mrs. Pontellier’s silver and crystal were the envy of many women of less generous husbands. Mr. Pontellier was very proud of this and according to our sassy narrator loved to walk around his house to examine everything. He “greatly valued his possessions. They were his and I quote “household gods.”
The Pontelliers had been married for six years, and Edna over this time had adjusted to the culture and obligations of being a woman of the competitive high society of Creole New Orleans. One such obligation apparently centered around the very serious etiquette of calling cards and house calls. This is something we’re familiar with, btw, since we watch Bridgerton. It was something we saw in Emma, too. Garry, talk to us about the very serious social business of calling cards.
Well, this is first and foremost a European custom during this time period. It started with simple cards designed to announce a person’s arrival, but as in all things human, it grew and grew into something much larger and subtextual- and of course, with rules. During the Victorian era, the designs on the cards as well as the etiquette surrounding were elaborate. A person would leave one’s calling card at a friend’s house, and by friend meaning a person in your community- you may or may not actually be friends. Dropping off a card was a way to express appreciation, offer condolences or just say hello. If someone moved into the neighborhood, you were expected to reach out with a card, and a new arrival was expected to do the same to everyone else.
The process would involve putting the card on an elaborate silver tray in the entrance hall. A tray full of calling cards was like social media for Victorians- you were demonstrating your popularity.
For example, if we were doing this today, we would have a place in the entrance of our home, and we’d make sure the cards of the richest or most popular people we knew were on to. We would want people who dropped off cards to be impressed by how many other callers we had AND how impressive our friends were. The entire process was dictated by complicated social rules, and as Leonce explains to Edna, to go against these rules could mean social suicide.
It could also mean financial suicide because business always has a human component. The function of an upper class woman would be to fulfil a very specific social obligation and this involved delivering and accepting these calling cards. Every woman would have a specific day where she would make it known she was receiving cards, and the other ladies would go around town to pay house calls. In some cases, a woman might remain in her carriage while her groom would take the card to the door. During the Regency era like in Jane Austen’s day, there was a system of bending down the corner of the card if you were there in person, and not if you were sending it, but by Chopin’s day, I’m not sure if that was still a thing.
The main thing was that the card would be dropped off on this special silver tray. If it were a first call, the caller might only leave a card. But, if you were calling on the prescribed day, the groom would further inquire if the lady of the house were home. A visit would consist of about twenty minutes of polite conversation. It was important that if someone called on you, you must reciprocate and call on then on their visiting day.
Well, the Tuesday they get back, Edna leaves the house on her reception day and does not receive any callers- a social no-no. In fact, as we go through the rest of the book, she never receives callers again. This is an affront to the entire society, and an embarrassment to her husband; it’s also just bad for business, as Mr. Pontellier tries to explain to his wayward wife, let’s read this exchange.
“Why, my dear, I should think you’d understand by this time that people don’t do such things; we’ve got to observe “les convenances” if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. If you felt that you had to leave this afternoon, you should have left some suitable explanation for your absences.
One thing I find interesting. Mr. Pontellier assumes that Mrs. Pontellier is on the same page on wanting the same things as he wants, and what he wants is to keep up with the procession. They’d been doing this for the last six years, and doing it well.
Another thing I notice is that he doesn’t rail at her for skipping out. Mr. Pontellier, unlike her father, even as we progress through the rest of the book, is not hard on her at all. In fact, he’s indulgent. The problem in the entire book is not that he’s been overtly abusive or cruel. Read the part where he tries to kind of help her fix what he considers to be a serious social blunder.
Well, if taken in isolation, this exchange doesn’t seem offensive, and I might even have taken sides with Mr. Pontellier if it weren’t back to back with this horrid scene of him complaining about his dinner then walking out to spend the rest of the evening at the club where he clearly spends the majority of his time. You have to wonder what is going on at that club, but beyond that. Edna is again left in sadness. “She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of tea garden below”. (On an aside, if you’ve read Chopin’s story, the story of an hour, you should recognize the language here and the image of this open window). Anyway,, Here again we have another image of a caged bird, or a person who is looking out in the world but not feeling a part of it. “She was seeing herself and finding herself in just sweet half-darkness which met her moods. But the voices were not soothing that came to her from the darkness and the sky above and the stars. They jeered and sounded mournful notes without promise, devoid even of home. She turned back into the room and began to walk to and from down its whole length, without stopping, without resting. She carried in her hands a thin handkerchief, which she tore into ribbons, rolled into a ball, and flung from her. Once she stopped, and taking off her wedding ring, flung it upon the carpet. When she saw it there, she stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it. But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet. In a sweeping passion she seized a glass vase from the table and flung it upon the tiles of the hearth. She wanted to destroy something. The crash and the clatter were what she wanted to hear.”
She’s clearly angry…and not just because Mr. Pontellier complained about the food and walked out of the house. She’s angry about everything.
Never mind the fact that we are never told what goes on at this club, but there are several indications in different parts of the book that Mr. Pontellier may be doing other things besides smoking cigars in crowded rooms. Adele even tells Edna that she disapproves of Mr. Pontellier’s club. She goes on to say, “It’s a pity Mr. Pontellier doesn’t stay home more in the evenings. I think you would be more- well, if you don’t me my saying it- more united.”
Although I will add, Edna quickly replies, “’Oh dear no!’ What should I do if he stayed home? We wouldn’t have anything to say to each other.” - the fact remains that MR. Pontelier does not see any need to nurture any sort of human or intimate relationship with Edna- theirs comes across as a cordial business arrangement, at best, with Edna in the position of employee.
True, and although I don’t know if this is the right place to point this out, but in terms of the sexual indiscretions that may or may not be going on when Mr. Pontellier is at the club, there is likely a lot in the culture at large going on under the surface that a person from the outside wouldn’t immediately be aware of. Edna is naïve at first to all that goes on in her Victorian-Creole world. There just is no such thing as “lofty chastity” amongst the Creole people, or any people I might add, although Edna initially seems to believe that in spite of all the sexual innuendo in the language, nothing sexual was ever going on. There are just too many indications otherwise in the story that that is not the case. The reader can see it, even though Edna cannot.
True, and if you didn’t catch it on Grand Isle, in the city, it is more obvious, and the farther along we go in the story, it gets more obvious as well. Mrs. James Highcamp is one example. She has married an “American” but uses her daughter as a pretext for cultivating relationships with younger men. This is so well-known that Mr. Pontellier tells Edna, after seeing her calling card, that the less you have to do with Mrs. Highcamp the better. But she’s not the only example. Victor basically details an encounter with Edna of being with a prostitute he calls “a beauty” when she comes to visit his mother..ending with the phrase that she wouldn’t comprehend such things. And of course, most obviously there is the character Arobin with whom Edna eventually does get sexually involved, but his reputation has clearly preceded him.
Well, Edna’s awakening to all of this would explain part of her anger, but there is more to Edna’s awakening then just Leonce, or the new culture she’s a part of, or really any outside factor.
Yes, and it is in the universality of whatever is going on inside of Edna that we find ourselves. That’s what’s so great about great literature- the setting can be 120 years ago, but our humanity is still our humanity.
I agree and love that, but let’s get back to her setting for a moment. I think it’s worth mentioning that the 19th century culture of the Creole people in New Orleans is messy and complicated in its own unique way. It’s fascinating, but for those who are not of the privileged class, life was often a harsh reality. The world, especially in the South, was problematic for people of mixed race heritage. So, and this is more true the closer we get to the Civil War and the Jim Crow era, but those who called themselves “white creoles” had a problem because of the large existence of the free people of mixed race ancestry in New Orleans. There was a strong outside pressure to maintain this illusion of racial purity, but the evidence suggests this simply wasn’t reality. Let me throw out a few numbers to tell you what I’m talking about. From 1782-1791, the St. Louis Catholic Church in New Orleans recorded 2688 births of mixed race children. Now that doesn’t seem like a large number, but let me throw this number out- that same congregation at that time same only records 40 marriages of black or mixed race people. Now, I know Catholics are known for having large families, but I’m not sure 20 women can account for 2688 births.
No, something feels a little wrong. That number suggests another explanation may be in order.
Exactly, and by 1840 that number grows from 2688 to over 20,000 with mixed raced Creoles representing 18% of the total population of residents of New Orleans. And if that doesn’t convince you, here’s another indicator, during this same period many many free women of color were acquiring prime real estate in New Orleans under their own names. These women had houses built and passed estates on to their children, but notice this detail, the children of these mixed-raced women had different last names then their mothers. We’re not talking about small amounts of property here. By 1860 $15 million dollars worth of property was in the name of children with last names that were not the same as that of their mothers, oh and by the way, a lot of that property was in the neighborhood where Edna rents her pidgeon house just around the corner from Esplanade street- in other words around the corner and walking distance from millionaire row.
Well, that’s really interesting, and I guess, does add a new dimension to the subtext in the language for sure.
Well, it does, and it is likely something readers of the day would have certainly understood, more than we do 100 years later when the stakes of identifying as being of mixed raced heritage are not the difference between freedom and slavery. But beyond just that, it’s an example of cultures clashing. Edna represents an outwardly prudish Puritan culture coming into a society that is French, Spanish and Caribbean- very different thinking. This is a de-facto multi-cultural world; it’s Catholic; it’s French-speaking; it’s international. She doesn’t understand what she’s seeing. And in that regard, her own situational reality is something she’s realizing she is only beginning to understand, and she comes into it all very gradually. She is not, in Adele’s words, “One of them.” In fact, there may have been irony in the narrator in Grand Isle suggesting that Robert LeBrun’s relationships every summer were platonic. His relationship with the girl in Mexico we will see most certainly is not, but nor was his relationship with Mariequeita on Grand Isle, the girl they meet on the day they spent together.
Indeed. You may be right- perhaps there is a real sense that Edna has been blind, and perhaps not just to her husband but by an entire society that presents itself one way but in reality is something entirely different altogether. When she visits Adele and her husband at their home, everything seems perfect- of course. Adele is the perfect woman with this perfect life. Adele is beautiful. Her husband adores her. The Ratignolle’s marriage is blissful, in fact to use the narrator’s words, “The Ratignolles’ understood each other perfectly. If ever the fusion of two human beings into one has been accomplished on this sphere it was surely in their union.”
Do you think it’s sarcasm again? Was it truly perfect, or just presenting itself to be perfect?
It's really hard to tell. Maybe they have worked out a great life together. I think there is a lot in this passage to suggest they are truly happy together. Edna even expresses that their home is much happier than hers. She quotes that famous Chinese proverb “Better a dinner of herbs”. The entire quote is “Better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox where hate is.”- meaning her house has better food but she thinks of it as a hateful place- whereas this place is the opposite.
Poor thing- she sees her reality for what it is. I still see a little sarcasm in the narrator’s language, but even if Adele is every bit as perfect as she seems, and even if her home is every bit as perfect as it seems, and even if her husband is every bit as perfect as he seems, in the most real of ways, that could all be true and it wouldn’t matter. E
Precisely, The Ratignole’s life can be every bit as perfect as it appears. and it wouldn’t make Edna want it any more. Edna leaves Adele’s happy home, realizing that even if she could have it it’s not the life she wants. She wouldn’t want that world even if Leonce loved her. It’s just not for her. The problem is, that’s as far as she’s gotten with her problem solving. All she knows is what she DOESN’T want. Her new world is a world of negation. She wants to quit, and so she does. She absolutely disregards all her duties to the point that it finally angers Leonce enough to confront her.
“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”
An atelier is an artist studio. It’ seems Edna has left all the responsibilities she had as a housewife as well as a mother. And let me add, Edna was never dusting, cooking, or bathing her children. She has several house keepers and nannies. But now, she’s not even overseeing what others are doing. Instead, she’s devoting herself entirely to painting. And surprisingly, Leonce doesn’t even have a problem with that in and of itself. Edna tells her husband, “I feel like painting.” To which he responds, “Then in God’s name paint! But don’t let the family go to the devil. There’s Madame Ratignolle, because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos. And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter.”
Yikes, that may be honest, but it does come across as a little harsh.
I know. I think it’s kind of a funny line. To which, Edna has an interesting comeback- it’s like she knows it’s not about the painting. She says, “It isn’t on account of the painting that I let things go.” He asks her then why she’s let everything go, but she has no answer. She says she just doesn’t know. Garry, do you want to take a stab at what’s going on with Edna?
Well, I do want to tread carefully. What is fascinating about this book is not so much that Chopin is arguing for any specific course of action, or warning against any specific set of behaviors. She doesn’t condemn Edna for anything, not even the affair she will have with Arobin. Instead of judging, Chopin, to me, seems to be raising questions. And it is the questions that she raises that are so interesting. Edna is desperately trying to rewrite the narrative of her life. There is no question about that. But that is an artistic endeavor, in some ways like painting or singing. I guess we can say Chopin is blending her metaphors here. Edna doesn’t want to be a parrot and copy, but she’s living her life exactly the way she is painting- it’s uncontrolled; it’s undisciplined; it’s impulsive. I’d also say, it’s rather unoriginal. There is no doubt that the social roles offered to her are restrictive. There’s no doubt her marriage is a problem, but as we get farther into the story, it’s hard to believe that even if all of these problems could be rectified that Edna would be able define a life for herself. We, as humans, are always more than a reaction to the social and cultural forces in our world- I hate to get back to the word we used last week, but I can’t get away from it. Even under strict social norms, which I might add, Edna is NOT under for her time period- she is after all one of the most privileged humans on planet Earth at that particular time in human history, but even if she were under severe restrictions, she, as a human, still has agency- we all do.
Yes- and to use Chopin’s words from chapter 6, Mrs Pontellier was beginning to realize her position as an individual as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world WITHIN and about her. I think that Edna is like the rest of us in that it’s easier to understand and manage the world about us as opposed to the world within. At least I can SEE the world about me- how can I see within? How can I understand myself? And so Edna goes to the world of Madame Reisz having discarded the world of Adele Ratignolle- the world of art, the world of the artist- which is where Edna goes in chapter 21. I would argue that she sees it as the polar opposite of Adele’s reality. There is the Adele version of being a woman- a totally objectified, sexualized but mothering type of woman= versus this version of womanhood who is basically asexually. Perhaps Madame Reisz isn’t a woman at all- she’s an artist.
Except that world, the world of the artist, comes with its own share of difficulties nevermind that it is simply more uncomfortable. Reisz’ house is described as “dingy”. There’s a good deal of smoke and soot. It’s a small apartment. There’s a magnificent piano, but no elegant food or servants or silver trays for calling cards. She cooks her meals on a gasoline stove herself. Let me quote here, “it was there also that she ate, keeping her belongings in a rare old buffet, dingy and battered from a hundred years use.”
True, but there is also the music and when the music filled the room it floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the air and made Edna sob. The art is otherworldly, and there is something to that. Something attractive maybe even metaphysical. I want to talk about Kate Chopin’s choice of music. I don’t think we noted this in episode one, but Chopin was an accomplished pianist. She played by ear and read music. She held parties, almost identical to the ones she described Madame Ratignole throwing in the book with dancing and card playing. Music was a very big deal to Kate Chopin, so when she includes specific music in her writing, she’s not just dropping in commonly used songs, she uses artists she likes for specific reasons, and in this novel, the pianist Frederic Chopin is selected intentionally- and not because he has the same last name, although I did check that out- they are not related. Garry, as a musician yourself, what can you tell us about Frederic Chopin, the Polish composer and pianist?
Well, let me make this comparison, Frederic Chopin’s music in his day was the pelvis gyrating Elvis’ Rock in Roll of his day. It was provocative. 19th century attitudes towards this type of harmony driven romantic music would seem hysterical to us. They were seen as sensual and a destructive force, especially for women. This may even be Chopin’s sassy narrator playing with us again- Frederic Chopin’s music is definitely driving sensuality in Edna. To say Kate Chopin is using it ironically is likely taking it too far, but I don’t know, maybe not. This narrator has been ironic before. The main undeniable connection is that Madame Reisz plays Impromptus. Impromptus are improvisational music. Frederic Chopin wrote only four of them in his career. The one Kate selects here is called Fantasie-Impromptu in C minor- it’s the only one in a minor key that he ever wrote. You can pull it up on Spotify and hear it for yourself. It is full of rhythmical difficulties. It’s very difficult to play. It’s quick and full of emotion. There is banging on low notes at times, thrills and rolling notes going faster and slower at others points. Frederic Chopin, by the way, was a very temperamental person and in some ways shares a lot of the personality quirks of Madame Reisz. But he did have an interesting philosophy about music that I really like and does connect to our book. He is recorded to have said this, “words were born of sounds; sounds existed before words…Sounds are used to make music just as words are used to form language. Thought is expressed through sounds. And undefined human utterance is mere sound; the art of manipulating sounds is music.”
Interesting, music is thoughts as sounds. I like the expression “undefined human utterance” especially in regard to Edna because she absolutely cannot get her thoughts out nor is she willing to share then with anyone. She expresses more than once that her inner world was hers and hers alone. She can’t get her thoughts out when she talks to Adele; she can’t get them out when she talks to her husband, and she can’t get them out even with Madame Reisz which would have been a very safe space for her to express herself. At the end of chapter 21, she’s sobbing at the music and holding in her hands a letter from Robert LeBrun crumpled and damp with tears.
It would have helped her to have found someone to talk to, maybe the Dr. Mandelet that Leonce goes to in chapter 22 for advice about how to help his wife.
What we find out from Leonce’s conversation is that Edna has withdrawn from every single person in her world. She won’t even go to her sister’s wedding. What the doctor sees when he goes to dinner at their house is a very outwardly engaging woman but an inwardly withdrawn one. The Doctor wonders if she’s having an affair, but she isn’t.
She is, to use the title of the book, One Solitary Soul. As a human being, there are only so many types of relationships we find meaning in: we have our parents and birth family, we have our intimate relationship, we have our children (if we have any), we have our professional relationships, and we have our social friends- at least one of these has to be working for us. Edna finds no satisfaction in any of them. She doesn’t have a trusting relationship anywhere.
Yes, every single relationship in her life is basically a burden. Edna is trying to relieve herself of every single responsibility in the world hoping that getting out of relationships will help her expand her identity. The problem is getting RID of responsibilities is not really the answer. To find meaning in this world you must DO something worth doing. Something that takes strength and energy. Something you can be proud of. Of course as a classroom teacher, that is what we do everyday. It’s not helpful to give students high grades or marks for nothing. It weakens them. When you give them a difficult task and then they are able to do that task, they grow, they get strong, they learn they are capable of even great responsibilities. If you want to get strong, you have to take ON responsibilities- you have to practice strength training, Edna goes the opposite way here.
Edna does look for models, and if she wanted a career path, or a professional life like we think of in our era, Chopin threw in a character that could have served that function. It’s what I see going on in the chapters about the races. Edna is actually really good at horse gambling. She knows horses. She knows the horse-racing business and knows it well. The text actually says that she knows more about horse-racing than anyone in New Orleans. In fact, it’s her knowledge about horses that puts her on the radar of the man she eventually has the sexual relationship with, Alcee Arobin.
Let’s read the section where we see this relationship, if we want to call it that, take shape. Arobin had first seen her perform well at the tracks and to use the narrator’s words, he admired Edna extravagantly after meeting her at the races with her father.
Mrs. Highcamp is also a completely different version of a feminine ideal, although neither Edna nor the narrator seem to think enough of to give her a first name. This confused me some when I read this because in my mind, Mrs. James Highcamp would have been this type of a liberated woman that Chopin might want to have Edna admire. She’s clearly sexualy liberated, but beyond that she’s worldly, intelligent, slim, tall. Her daughter is educated, participates in political societies, book clubs, that sort of thing. But nothing about Mrs. James Highcamp is alluring to Edna at all. She suffers Mrs. James Highcamp because of her interest in Arobin.
Let’s read about these encounters between Arobin and Edna.
Here’s the first one
So, Arobin becomes fascinated with Edna, in part because she is so smart and different from other women. At the end of that evening, they dined with the Highcamps. And afterwards Arobin takes Edna home. The text says this “She wanted something to happen- something, anything, she did not know what. She regretted that she had not made Arobin stay a half hour to talk over the horses. She counted the money she had won. There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed, and tossed there for hours in a sort of monotonous agitation.
And so the relationship with Arobin is born out of boredom.
Yes, the dominant movement in Edna’s life is always drifting towards boredom. Edna wants to rewrite her social script, but she can’t seem to define what she wants. She has trouble speaking, so she has no words to write her own story. She doesn’t want to be a mother; she doesn’t want to work except in sunny weather; she has an opportunity with Mrs. Highcamp to get involved with political or literary women; but that doesn’t spark her interest. She could make a name for herself at the races, but the money doesn’t motivate her- she’s always had it and in some ways doesn’t seem to know a world without money. So, she’s going to default into this relationship with Arobin. I’m going to suggest that she is again playing the part of the parrot. Messing around with Arobin is just the kind of thing she sees men doing. It’s what Victor does; it may be what her husband does; it is likely what Robert is doing down in Mexico, so she’s going to try to mimic male behavior since she hasn’t really found a female model she’s interested in emulating, and Arobin is an opportunitiy for this.
And yet, she’s self-aware enough to not be seduced by Arobin. The first time he really tries to make a move on her by kissing her hand, this is what she says which I find insightful,
“When she was alone she looked mechanically at the back of her hand which he had kissed so warmly. Then she leaned her head down on the mantlepiece. She felt something like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour. The thought was passing vaguely through her mind, “what would he think?”
She did not mean her husband; she was thinking of Robert LeBrun. Her husband seemed to her now like a person whom she had married without love as an excuse. She lit a candle and went up to her room. Alcee Arobin was absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her. She slept a languorous sleep, interwoven with vanishing dreams.”
Garry, is there a connection between Edna’s boredom with her new life and her desire to pursue this relationship with Arobin.
Well, again, Dr. Kate Chopin is playing the psychologist. Science has absolutely confirmed there is a relationship with boredom and risk-taking behaviors. In other words, the more bored you find yourself, the more likely you are to do something risky. It’s one reason teenagers are so prone to dangerous behaviors like drugs. They don’t know yet how to cope with personal down time. They can’t manage their own boredom. Bored people don’t know what they want to do. They also score low on scares that measure self-awareness. Bored people can’t monitor their own moods or understand what they truly want. And here’s another characteristic that should sound familiar in the life of Mrs. Edna Pontellier, notice that last line “vanishing dreams”, Edna is not dreaming. She’s not working at writing a script for her life..structuring a story for herself. Her dreams and not building anything, they are vanishing. That’s not good. And it’s not that doesn’t have illusions, she does, but a dream is not an illusion. Dreams are what inspire us to do something different. Both a dream and an illusion are unreal, but an illusion will always be an illusion- it has no chance of becoming real; out of dreams new realities are born. We are not seeing Edna dream. Her dreams are vanishing.
Which brings us to the place where I want to end with this episode- chapter 26 and Edna’s decision to move out of her husband’s house. I mentioned that this book is constructed with the archetypal 3 in mind at every point. Edna has been living on Esplanade street- the wealthy gilded cage life, and she doesn’t want that. She has visited Madame Reisz’s apartment, but she doesn’t seem to want that- it’s, and I quote, “cheerless and dingy to Edna”. So what does she do? She moves two steps away from Esplanade Street, to a house Ellen calls, “the pigeon house.” Pigeons are the oldest domesticated bird in the world. They never fly far from home- homing pigeons is actually a term. She’s building an illusion. Edna is going out of her husband’s house to a place around the corner, but is she really building a new life of any kind? What is this about? Edna describes it to Madame Reisz, this way, “I know I shall like it, like the feeling of freedom and independence.”
But is the feeling of freedom and independence the same as actually having freedom and independence?
Well, obviously not. They are worlds apart. But Edna lives in feelings. She works when she feels like it. She plays with her children when she feels like it, and now she admits to Madame Reisz that she’s in love with Robert LeBrun, who by the way is coming back. And when she finds that out she feels, and I quote “glad and happy to be alive.” And what does she do after that, she stops at a candy store, buys a box to send to her children who are with their grandparents in the country and she writes a charming letter to her husband. Her letter was brilliant and brimming with cheerfulness. I’m sorry, but Edna frustrates the feminist in me.
Well, Edna is struggling for sure. She can’t connect with people. She can’t identify a dream worth pursuing. She can’t write her own story. There is no doubt that a lot of this has to so with cultural and social forces at work in her world. These are powerful forces. However, it is not the outside forces of her world that will do her in. Edna is smart. She’s beautiful. She’s charming. She actually has a lot going for her, especially for a woman during this time period. If Chopin had wanted to write a story where a woman breaks free and soars, she has a protagonist who is positioned to do that very thing.
But she’s in a mess. And maybe that’s why she’s so relatable. Many of us have made messes of our lives. We have an incredible ability to screw up, but humans are also incredibly resilient. Look at Chopin’s own life as an example. In some ways, she’s both Adele Ragntingole and Madame Reiz, at different points in her life she’d been both. She may even have been Mrs. James Highcamp to a lesser degree. Why is Edna struggling here?
Well, humans are incredibly resilient, but you know what else we are- we are social beings. Let’s revisit that original book title, “One Solitary Soul”- it’s my experience that no one gets out alone- not even the rich, the beautiful or the smart. No one gets out alone.
Ah, Edna is strong enough to confront the forces without, but who will help her confront the forces within?
And so next episode, we will see her confront those internal forces. There are no more female characters to meet; no more male characters either for that matter. We will see Edna confront Edna alone, and we will see what happens. Thank you for listening. If you enjoy our podcast, please share it with a friend, a relative, your classmates, your students. We only grow when you share. Also, come visit with us via our social media how to love lit podcast- on Instagram, facebook and our website. Feel free to ask questions, give us your thoughts, recommend books. These are all things we love. Thanks for being with us today.