Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 2 - Edna Pontellier Defies All Explanations!
HI, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. This is our second episode in our four part series discussing the world of Kate Chopin. Last week we introduced our author and what is generally considered her masterpiece, the novella, The Awakening. Today we will continue discussing this book as we meet Edna and mosey around the Creole world of Victorian Louisiana on the vacation island of Grand Isle.
This book is like Camus’ The Stranger in that it is incredibly complicated but deceptively simple looking. It has been misunderstood since the minute it was published, and it’s still misunderstood. Critics have claimed it’s a champion of the women’s movement; a challenge to the patriarchy, an expose on depression, a discussion of narcissism, an exploration of female sexuality- and certainly it can be looked at through each of these lens without any difficulty at all and there are things to say there. And yet, Chopin cryptically told one critic in response to her book nothing along any ideological lines. This is how she chose to frame her book, and I never and I quote, “dreamed of Edna making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did.”
What does that even mean?
Exactly, it’s a consciously and deliberately messy book. It is NOT best read as an ideological book of any kind- no matter if your prejudices lie for or against her apparent causes. It certainly makes it easier to read if you’re looking to make it a political statement, and when I was first introduced to it, that’s how I was taught to read it, but I have since decided to reject easy interpretations of great literature in general primarily because that makes something great immediately uninteresting. And this book is definitely NOT uninteresting.
So, if we’re not to read it about being about politics, the patriarchy, oppression or that sort of thing, how should we understand it?
Isn’t that the million dollar question? What is so compelling about Edna Pontellier- and she has been compelling even maddening for the last 120 years.
I don’t find her necessarily a likeable person, are we supposed to? At first I wondered if it was designed so that men are supposed to not like her or maybe not like themselves by looking at what’s happened to her, but do women generally find her likeable? I also don’t see how to avoid seeing gender as an important component of this book.
Oh I agree, you can’t help but see gender and you’re definitely supposed to. It’s about a woman- it’s about being a woman- but is there anything more complicated than a woman?
That’s a loaded question!! Do you honestly think you can bait me into answer that?
Ha! Wise man! In all serious, it’s about being human, but from a women’s perspective- and that can’t be reduced to any single set of definable variables. That’s what’s messy about it. It’s about a woman in the Victorian era at the turn of the century- the particulars of the challenges women faced that that particular political moment in US history- the woman question, as they referred to it in those days, but that’s just our starting point- the setting, so to speak- there are more interesting parts of Edna and her awakening than just resolving the contextual economic, sexual or matrimonial roles in society. Beyond that, let’s just look at the term “the awakening”. It's kind of a strange term to use in a book where the protagonist spends an unusually large amoung of her time asleep. I’m not sure I’ve seen a protagonist sleep as much as Edna in any book, except maybe Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Wrinkle.
And yet, the title begs a question. What is an awakening, or at least what is ’”The Awakening”? as Edna is to experience it. The first part of the book which we are going to talk about today- chapters 1-16 IS her awakening. For her, it’s kind of a gradual experience that happens to her over a summer. Chopin first defines it in chapter 6, it’s described as coming into one’s own humanity – to recognize one’s relations as an individual to the world within and about.
You know that’s a great definition of what it means to grow up really- to find one’s agency in the world.
Chopin insightfully connects someone’s internal awakening with their sexual awakening. This awareness of how you are a sexual being and as such interact with other beings as sexual beings- both of the same sex as well as the opposite sex. Chopin illustrates this many ways and, and I would go far as to say seems to use sexual agency as an expression of agency of a general kind.
Yes, and what does that mean? How should we define agency, as in human agency? What do you mean when you use that term? I know I asked a question that could be a long answer, but in just a few words.
Agency, in general, refers to our capability as humans to influence our own functioning. It is our ability to direct the course of events through our own actions. Said another way, it’s our ability to determine and make meaning through purposeful and reflective creative action.
A psychologist by the name of Albert Bandura out of Stanford university is a leading figure in this field, so if you’re interested, just Google his nam and you can read as much as you want. But basically, according to Bandura, we exercise our agency in four ways. We are self-organizing, pro-active, self-regulating, and self-reflecting. We are not simply onlookers of our behavior. We are contributors to our life circumstances, not just products of them. That’s a quote
We like to think, and we do think the younger we are, that agency means freedom. And in many ways it does. But what does freedom even mean? Does it mean I get to do whatever I want? Well, sort of, but we’re interacting in a world full of forces both from the outside but also from the inside. Understanding that seems to be what Chopin is wanting to explore in a very feminine context- because female forces aren’t always the same as male forces, by definition.
Well, I will tell you what Bandura would say. The problem is that Most human pursuits involve other people, so there is no absolute agency. Let me use Bandura’s words here. He says, “Individuals have to accommodate their self-interests if they are to achieve unity of effort within diversity. Collective endeavors require commitment to a shared intention and coordination of interdependent plans of action to realize it- in other words you have to get along in the world you live in. That’s the rub.
Ahhh- getting along with others. That’s another important idea to think about here. The Awakening wasn’t even the original title of this book. The original title was A Solitary Soul. That makes you think of the story in an entirely different way. Is this a story about waking up or being alone or both? If there’s something that we can see immediately in the characterization of Edna, is that she is a solitary woman. She is very much alone and has been all of her life not physically alone, but emotionally.
Well, for me that title tells me that this book is about attachment and intimacy, but I may be jumping the gun. We didn’t get very far into the story last episode. We basically only got through the first chapter, so let’s kind of start there. We found ourselves on a vacation resort island, the Grand Isle- which is fifty miles from New Orleans. Emily Toth, Chopin’s biographer, described it as kind of a tropical paradise of sorts. She said that For young mothers, like Kate Chopin it was a wholesome place to spend what otherwise was a dangerous season in the South. Unlike New Orleens the Grand Isld didn’t have open canals or cisterns. There weren’t swarms of disease infested mosquitos to threaten children or adults. No one there had to lock their doors. The island was a tropical paradise. It had palm trees, vines, orange and lemon trees, acres of yellow chamomile. There were no actual streets only grassygreen or sandy paths. It was seductive to the imagination, too, with tales of shipwrecks and pirate gold from Barataria Bay, the old haunt of the pirate Jean Lafitte.
And of course that makes sense Memphis is also sweltering hot in the summer. And for years, summer months in the South were deadly. Mosquitos came in and with them deadly diseases. Yellow fever especially was terrorizing, so if you could afford to get away from the city in the summer you did; and many many people did exactly what we see the Pontellier’s doing here. Edna and the kids would stay at Grand Isle, Leonce would go into the city during the week and would come out to spend the weekends with the family.
Last week, we didn’t actually meet Edna; we met her husband who is annoyed by these cackling birds that are making so much noise he can’t read his newspaper- a parrot and a mockingbird, and we talked about how birds are important symbols in this book.
Yes- Birds and wings. We have a parrot, we have a mockingbird, and later we’re going to have a pigeon house. We’re also going to have a woman with angel wings, and another woman who tells Edna she needs strong wings. But before we get to the lady friends with wings, let’s meet Edna Pontellier.
Soon after Mr. Pontellier leaves the house, Mrs. Pontellier and her summer companion Robert LeBrun come strolling along. It’s not one of the world’s more normal love triangles- watch how these three interact- Let’s read this interaction
Well, there’s nothing quite so startling as introducing a book’s protagonist as an object on page one. Mr. Pontellier literally looks at his wife as a piece of property according to our narrator, and he seems to care less about the man she’s spending all of her time with.
Yes, but there’s more to see here. She’s clearly a beautiful woman and a prize for her husband, but what does she get in exchange- rings. And they sparkle. She also gets days at the beach free of responsibility- in fact, we will see that Edna is the only character in this book who does no work of any kind, ever. These two have made a deal. And what we clearly see as we watch the relationship develop is that love was never part of their original agreement, at least not the way we would like to understand love as it works in an ideal marriage. Edna married Leonce because he loved her and flattered her, but Chopin is careful to make us very aware that she never loved Leonce in return or even deceived herself into thinking she did. She was “running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service” from her father. Although, we have to jump ahead to chapter 7 to see that. Let’s just read the love story of these two lovebirds…to borrow from Chopin’s bird motif:
Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of Fate. It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband.
The acme of bliss, which would have been a marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.
But it was not long before the tragedian had gone to join the cavalry officer and the engaged young man and a few others; and Edna found herself face to face with the realities. She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution.
Not the most romantic love story I’ve ever read. In fact, she seems almost proud that she doesn’t love Leonce, but honestly, I think we can say that story is common enough. How many girls and guys marry whoever they're dating in their youth just because it seems like it’s the time to do something like that happens to be the person they met at that time- as Chopin would call it, “an accident masquerading as a decree of Fate”? How many others make a deal of convenience- a financial transaction or sorts.
I agree completely- my favorite Marilyn Monroe movie, is about that- Diamond are a Girl’s Best Friend. Although I will say, most of the time things don’t work out like they do for Mrilyn Monroe. Chopin’s portrayal is more realistic. People marry and then sooner or later, one or both partners start doing things that resemble Chopin’s descriptions of the Pontellier marriage. In Victorian days, it was women, but today, I’ve seen situations where either partner experiences this exact thing Edna’s experiencing- sad isolation- being discarded for one thing or another. Edna and Leonce have two small children, but here in chapter 3, Edna finds herself in isolation and crying in the middle of the night. It’s gut-wrenching. This relationship is cruel, and not just because Leonce wakes her up in the middle of the night wanting to talk- the scene as it unfolds is an expression of a total lack of understanding between these two.
What is most cruel here is the total lack of intimacy between these two. And money doesn’t make it all better even though they seem to think it does. Leonce gives Edna a bunch of money the next day knowing that it makes her happy. And later on after he goes back to New Orleans, Edna receives a care package from her husband, and she even admits to her friends that she knows of no better husband than Leonce Pontellier.
Of course, this comes across very ironic to the reader because Chopin has already taken us behind the veil of what looks like a perfectly ideal marriage to see a lonely woman who cries when no one is watching.
I also found it interesting that in the second chapter of the book before we even read the sad incident of Edna crying through the night, we are told that her mother had been dead- just a very psychological detail to introduce into the text.
She’s a solitary soul. There’s a couple more important details I think we need to pay attention to here early on in the text- what about this gentlemen- Robert LeBrun- Robert spends all day every day with Edna at Grande Isle, but Leonce is not jealous of him at all. In fact, we are told Creole husbands are never jealous- that the gangrene passion is one which has become is dwarfed by disuse- although I’m not really sure I understand exactly what that expression means.
No, On the contrary, Leonce seems to like the fact that Edna has a playmate. Robert takes Edna off his hands, so to speak. Later in chapter 5, we are told that Robert picks a different girl every summer to fawn over. Some of the girls are single, but mostly he picks married women- unattainable ones. These women apparently enjoy the attention, and Robert isn’t taken seriously as a threat. It’s part of the beach culture, and not a threat in this Creole culture.
Agreed, except, as we’re going to find out, Edna isn’t a Creole woman and things aren’t the same with her- as Adele reminds Robert in chapter 8 as she tries to talk him into leaving Edna alone. She point blank tells him, “Edna isn’t one of us”. And she very much is NOT. Edna, the reader knows, was raised in a very frigid home- nothing like the physicality, sensuality and the openness of the Creole people. I’ve got more to say about that, but before we get too far from the crying scene in chapter 3, I want draw attention to the detail where Chopin connects Edna’s loneliness and tears to the sea. As Edna sat there alone and crying in the night, Chopin points out that and I quote, “no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea.” Two ideas here worth noticing- first Chopin is going to do a lot with sounds. Music is important, which we’ll talk about extensively next episode. But Grand Isle is noisy place- we’ve already had noisy birds and little, girls playing the piano, but here's the second idea- notice the emphasis and presence of the sea, it is the most important symbol of the entire book. The ocean is also an archetype.
Just in case you haven’t heard us talk about archetypes before and unfamiliar what we mean by them in this literary context, archetypes are psychological. The psychologist Carl Jung famously theorized that they are symbols wired into our brains- that’s one way to look at them- he called them a universal collective consciousness. They are universal…meaning cultures all over the world throughout time having had nothing to do with each other use the same symbols to mean the same things- although they have had no way to coordinate this. It’s an interesting and true phenomena whether you agree with Jung’s understanding of the unconsciousness or not. Not all traditional symbols are archetypes, but many are. The ocean is an archetype that represents death, rebirth, timelessness, eternity, the mother of all life- it has in cultures of all times all over the world. This is not a symbol Chopin just made up. Do we know how she’s using it here, Christy, any ideas?
Well, we’ll have to see how she develops it along the way. That’s the thing about symbols, they take a life of their own in the story but also inside of every different reader. But let’s just take note of what we can see: they are at the seaside, Robert and Edna have been at the sea all day, and now Edna listens to the sea- to its mournful lullaby- it’s just something to pay attention to and watch.
In chapter 4, we meet our first Creole woman, Mrs. Adele Raginolle, and my goodness she is basically described as a goddess. Chopin says there are no words to describe her, she’s that gorgeous. She’s the bygone heroine of romance.
Oh yes, I’m intimidated by just reading about her. I also want to point out before we get too far away from our discussion of archetypes that Chopin does a lot of things in threes- an archetypal number. There are three women- Adele, Edna and this other one we’re going to meet in chapter 9, Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna was raised in a household of 3 girls. She had three crushes before marrying Leonce. She has three male lovers in the later part of the book. She has three homes to consider living in later on- it’s all carefully constructed and thematic, and we’ll need to look at all of them. But we’ll start with the women. First, the amazing Adele. She reminds me of some of the Louisianan beauties that intimated me when I showed up my ninth grade year at West Monroe Junior High School, home of the Colonels. Adele is perfect- gracious, well-mannered. She is Southern charm writ large. Let me quote, “there was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spungold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were nothing but sapphires, two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious or crimson fruit in looking at them.” Does it get any more perfect than that?
HA!, well, before she even talks about her physical beauty we find out she is the ideal mother-woman, and Chopin describes what that is. A mother-woman is one who is “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood.” A woman who and again I quote, “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Christy, of course we’re supposed to notice the wings, but I can’t help but detect a slight bit of sarcasm on the part of the narrator. Is she mocking “mother-women”? That whole description of Adele and the mother-women sound over the top.
Great point and good question- and truly hits on another of the several brilliant strokes of this novel. We talked about this when discussing Jane Austen, but Chopin uses the same narrative style Jane Austen used- this thing we call free indirect discourse. And- for me this is important in understanding the novel as a whole. What Chopin does is manipulates our perspective of events by mixing the perspective of a neutral narrator and merging that perspective with perspectives of the characters, mostly Edna’s but not always. When we have this objective narrator we see sarcasm and strong opinion, like when we saw that Mr. Pontellier looked at Edna on page two as a valuable piece of property. That’s the narrator’s perspective, but then sometimes we have with this also an ability to merge into the point of view of one of the characters and see how they see things- like when Edna describes not really being in love with Leonce when they got married or fighting with her younger sister or even crying alone. Sometimes we even see things from the point of view of another character, and a lot of times this objective narrator is very ironic about this- like here, but we saw it before when Leonce came in from the club at 11pm after Edna was asleep. Listen to how Chopin phrases this, “He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in the things which concerned him and valued so little his conversation. Isn’t that ironic and kind of funny. It seems unreasonable for him to think of her as the object of his existence. But the way she writes it makes us understand that Robert really and truly believes Edna is the center of his universe. We just don’t buy it. Here again, we truly believe that everyone thinks Adele is the ideal woman, we’re just not so sure we should buy it. It doesn’t really seem a holy privilege to us to be efface oneself as an individual and grow wings as a ministering angel. In fact, it sounds terrible. Never mind the fact, that right after that glowing recommendation of Adele’s perfection, we are let on to the fact that she fakes being sick all the time. Why do that? That’s manipulative- that’s not a perfect angel at all.
Well, being around Adele, being around all the sensuous women and you haven’t mentioned the dirty book these ladies passed around, that embarrasses Edna- but all of this changes Edna. She’s not use to the carefree openness of the Croele culture towards sensuality. She doesn’t understand it. And to add onto that, being around the ocean, being around this adoring younger man, Robert, being around the physicality of the females towards each other affects her- it’s the sensuality that awakens something in her, if you will. She had felt it slightly before, but shut it down and almost prided herself in shutting it down by marrying Leonce.
And, in some ways, it comes in slowly and takes her by surprise. By chapter six Edna is starting to dream, to feel emotional- something beyond just whatever is going on between her and Mr. Pontellier. In short, “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relationships as an individual to the world within and about her. Ths may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of 28- perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginnings! How many souls perish in its tumult! The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abyss of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
Dang, that’s definitely an outside narrator. It feels a little like foreshadowing.
The language is metaphorical- the ocean is personified- it’s alive.
There are two things that really stand out to me psychologically, the first is the admission that chaos is the beginning of things. Which of course is true. Organizing chaos is what starting anything is about. But that is problematic. Chaos requires a lot of effort and responsibility to untangle. Is Edna ready to begin something like that? Is that what she wants? Because we aren’t given any hints that Edna looks towards anything. The text goes to a lot of trouble to suggest that she’s whimsical, thoughtless, impulsive, almost childish even. What comes after an awakening is naturally more responsibility- the exercise of agency as Bandura would describe it. We haven’t seen much of a responsible side in Edna. The second is how dangerous the ocean is expressed to be- which of course is something everyone knows who’s ever gotten into the ocean. The ocean is certainly seductive; it’s beautiful but incredibly dangerous? And thus the second question? Is Chopin suggesting that Edna is walking into something that is deceptively beautiful- something that looks enticing but is actually terrible- something that promises to be an awakening but actually something that would silence her forever. Just asking for a friend, as they say? As a man, I wouldn’t want to presume to unsettle any woman’s spiritual awakening.
HA! No, I would say you would not- that would be wading in dangerous waters- parumpum. And of course, you are right on all accounts. Edna doesn’t look forward, but she does look back and in chapter 7 as she and Adele stroll on the beach, Chopin takes us back into Edna’s past. Edna reflects on the three men she had crushes on, how being infatuated made her feel. This is the chapter where Edna reflects on not loving Leonce but enjoying his flattery. She also awakens in chapter 7 to the idea that she has mixed feelings about her own children. She doesn’t think she loves her kids the way Adele loves hers. And I quote, “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them…their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her. Garry, what do you think about that?
Well, it’s hard not to diagnose Edna, even though it’s not prudent to diagnose fictional characters. Obviously Kate Chopin is an incredibly observant student of human behavior. She has seen this in real life. Her interest in Edna is microscopic in some of the details. What we know now from neuroscientists as well as psychologists who study attachment theory is that some women because they weren’t nurtured as babies or children DO have trouble attaching to their own children. Obviously that was not Kate Chopin’s experience, but she clearly saw it somewhere. She goes to great lengths to talk about how isolated Edna was as a child, how her mother was dead and her older sister was distant. When we meet Edna’s father later on in the book, the reader can see for themselves that he’s mean. It seems clear, that Edna either feels guilty or at least feels like she at least should feel guilty that she doesn’t seem to feel the way Adele feels towards either her husband or her children. There’s a very telling passage at the end of chapter 16 where she tells Adele that she would never sacrifice herself for her children or for anyone. That had actually started an argument with Adele. Edna says this, “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend which is revealing itself to me.”
I would also add, that that might be a dangerous thing to say in a Victorian world. A Victorian woman would never admit to having such a feeling. That wouldn’t be well-received.
Yes, I’ve read that passage too. In fact, it’s quoted a lot as a passage for female empowerment. A woman saying she won’t give up her essence as an individual- to be subsumed into anyone else- be it a child or a man or anything.
Yes, and maybe that’s what it means, but it may not mean that. It may mean that she just can’t. She literally can’t. Lots of men and women both give up their lives for their families, their friends, even their country- and giving up their lives doesn’t mean giving up their identities. It means they love greatly. I’m wondering if Chopin is suggesting Edna is realizing she is incapable of loving anyone outside herself, at least not loving greatly. It’s not entirely clear to me which direction she intends to direct this character.
So, if Adele is the first model of woman for Edna, the second model is Madame Reisz. Adele and Madame Reisz are foils. Total contrasts. Chapter 9 introduces Reisz at an evening party there at Grand Isle. I should mention that the treatment of time in this novel is completely non-traditional. There are large gaps of time between events, so you just have to keep up. Anyway, a few weeks have passed between chapter 8 and chapter 9. In chapter 8 is where Adele tells Robert to stop flirting with Edna because, to use Adele’s words “she is not like us” and she might take him seriously.
Of course, Robert ignores Adele’s warning and spends all of his time with Edna. He seems to have decide he’s good with that.
Yeah, he’s good with that until he isn’t…but that’s not the point I want to make here- In chapter 9, we meet another version of a feminine ideal in the person of Madame Reisz The summer residents of the Grand Isle are having a party at the big house. Everyone’s dancing. Adele is on the piano since she’s too pregnant to dance herself, and everyone is having the best time. It’s pointed out that Adele plays the piano, not because she cares about the piano but because music makes her kids and husband happy. Music brightens their home. It’s a means to an end, but not the end itself. She is passionate about her family- that’s the goal.
She is the mother-woman, after all.
Exactly- but not so with Mademoiselle Reisz. Mademoiselle Reisz we will see is the artist-woman. Mademoiselle Reisz’ relationship with music is much deeper. Music is the end for her. It’s her passion. and her music doesn’t make people happy it moves them to another place entirely.
Before we talk about how Madame Reisz’ music affects everyone including Edna, let’s see how Chopin describes Madame Reisz- and contrast that with how she compared Adele. if you remember Adelle is the most beautiful creature to alight on planert earth. But here’s Madame Reisz.
She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others….she was a homely woman, with a weazened face and body and eyes that glowed. She had absolutely no taste in dress, and wore a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violents pinned to th side of her hair.”
Well, that’s not exactly flattering.
No, I’d say it isn’t. She is not a mother-woman either. She’s single and strong in a different way, not that Adele isn’t strong because I think she is. It’s just a different feminine ideal. When Madame Reisz plays the piano it sends a tremor down Edna’s spinal cord, literally. Let me read the text here, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking and tears blinded her.”
Edna is crying again, but this time it’s very different.
True, and it is this night that Edna finally learns to swim. Robert talks the entire party out into the white moonlight for a late night swim. The sea is quiet, and Edna for the first time, boldly and with overconfidence goes into the water all by herself. She has been trying all summer to learn to swim and has failed, but tonight it’s different. A feeling of exultation overtakes her. She grows and I quote, “daring and reckless, overestimating her strength, she wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” She’s intoxicated by her power to swim alone. The text says, ‘she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” She tells Robert how swimming made her feel as he walks her back to her cottage. She said this, “A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight. I don’t comprehend half of them…she goes on to say. It is like a night in a dream.”
She stays on the porch that night instead of going in to bed like she usually does. Mr. Pontellier comes home sometime past 1am (although I’m not quite sure where he went after the beach party), and she’s still on the porch wide awake. He tells her to come in with him. The text says that she normally would have “yielded to his desire”- however you want to understand that- but this night for the first time in her life, she tells him no. She feels strong- maybe even masculine. He’s kind of shocked and stays on the porch with her the entire night. The text says this, “Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.”
That sounds like she has had her awakening.
Well, it does, but then what does that awakening impel her to do? The very first paragraph of chapter 12 says this, She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.” That does NOT sound like empowerment or Dr. Bandura’s description of human agency. It sounds like the opposite of empowerment. Impulsivity and irresponsibility are not noble character traits that lead to success.
No, and if Edna is the parrot from the first chapter of the book, it seems to me, she might be parroting the behavior of her husband as her first acts of independence. She tries to outwait him at night, then, the next morning, she gets up early and leaves him, just has he has done to her every single day. She calls Robert and is gone, and she stays gone until 9pm at night leaving Adele to put her kids down. It seems to me Edna and Leonce have more in common than we might have thought from the first two chapters of the book.
Yeah, the text literally says, “She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.” Robert even mentions to Edna that he had often noticed that she lacked forethought.
There’s that word again- responsibility. And hence the great paradox Edna does not understand responsibility and freedom go hand in hand. If you don’t have responsibility, you really can’t have freedom. Edna tries to have one at the expense of the other.
She also starts things and doesn’t see them through. Even on this little adventure outing, she starts the mass, but walks out. She literally goes into the house of a woman she doesn’t know, imposes herself by laying on her bed and sleeps the entire day away. She is able to exercise freedom, but often only because other people are willing to take responsibility for her.
The first part of the book ends with chapter 16. Robert has announced that he is leaving Grand Isle and going to Mexico.
We are left to infer, that after a day with Edna and the realization he might have real feelings for her, he doesn’t want the entanglement taking responsibility for that will bring. Edna, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get it. She is distraught. She doesn’t know how will she spend the rest of her summer without Robert. Her husband literally asks her, “How do you get on without him, Edna?” Which I think is a question I would never ask you about another man, but again I’m not a Victorian Creole.
Ha, no, that’s true, but these two don’t think a thing about it. Let me read this part, “It did not strike her as in the least grotesque that she should be making or Robert the object of conversation and leading her husband to speak of him. The sentiment which she entertained for Robert in no way resembled that which she felt for her husband, or had ever felt, or ever expected to feel. She had all her life been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and they concerned no one but herself.”- again that outside narrator commenting somewhat ironically on the state of affairs.
Well, our solitary soul has not found wings, but she has found her sea legs and is exercising them. I don’t find her behavior necessarily admirable at this point, but, but as we said in the beginning of the podcast- beginings are always chaotic. That’s the normal state of affairs. The question will be, is Edna capable of creating a story for herself? She has decided she hasn’t been the protagonist of her own life, she’s been a parrot, or an object of Leonce’s. She’s awakened to that in some way, she has begun. She has two models of womanhood before her- the mother-woman of Adele and the artist-woman of Madame Reisz. Next episode we will see the middle part of her story, what will Edna do when she goes back home? What will she do when she’s away from the sea, the dreamy unreality of vacation life. Will she take on new responsibilities with her awakening?
Indeed, things aren’t always the same when we get back home after vacation. So, thanks for listening………..