The novel opens on the Grand Isle, a summer retreat for the wealthy French Creoles of New Orleans. Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy New Orleans business man of forty years of age, reads his newspaper. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lebrun’s parrot repeats phrases in English and French and her mockingbird sings in “fluty notes. ” Leonce retreats to his own cottage to escape the birds’ noisy chatter. The cottages are a scene of bustling Sunday activity. A lady in black walks back and forth in front of the cottages with her rosary beads in hand. Mr. Pontellier’s four- and five-year-old sons play under the watchful eye of their quadroon nurse.
Leonce smokes a cigar and watches as his wife, Edna, and young Robert Lebrun, Mrs. Lebrun’s son, slowly stroll from the beach. He urges Edna to swim at a cooler time of the day after he notes her sunburn. He invites Robert to play some billiards at Klein’s hotel, but Robert prefers to stay and talk with Edna. Edna is handsome, engaging woman. Robert is a clean-shaven, carefree young man. He discusses his plans to go to Mexico at the end of the summer on business. She talks about her childhood in Kentucky bluegrass country and her sister’s upcoming wedding. Leonce wakes Edna when he enters the bedroom that night.
He relates his experiences of the evening, but she responds only with sleepy half-answers. Her lack of interest in his evening bothers him. He checks on his sons and informs Edna that Raul seems to have a fever. She replies that the child was fine earlier, and he criticizes her lack of motherly concern. After a cursory visit to the boys’ bedroom, Edna refuses to answer any of her husband’s inquiries. Leonce soon falls asleep, but Edna is wide awake. She sits on the porch and weeps quietly, listening to the sea. It is not an unsual event, but she recognizes that Leonce is often kind and loving.
The next morning, Leonce departs to attend his business for the following week. Everyone gathers to bid good-bye because he is a popular man. He sends Edna a box of bonbons from New Orleans, and she shares them with her friends. They declare that Leonce is a wonderful husband. Leonce notes with displeasure that Edna is not very motherly. The mother-women “idolize” their children, “worship” their husbands, and regard it as a “holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels. ” Adele Ratignolle is the premium example of the mother-woman.
She embodies all the “womanly charms” of romantic heroines. In seven years, she has had three children and is planning on a fourth. Edna is not entirely at home in Creole culture. She cannot reconcile their lack of prudery to the irreproachable chastity of Creole women. After a month, Edna and Robert achieve a stage of “advanced intimacy. ” Since early adolescence, Robert has become the “devoted attendant” of a woman every summer. One afternoon, Robert exchanges banter with Edna about his days as Adele’s attendant. Adele jests that she feared her husband’s jealousy, but everyone knows that a Creole husband is never jealous.
Robert’s proclamations of love to Adele were never seriously intended. Edna sketches Adele while Robert watches. He leans his head on her arm, but she pushes him away. The finished drawing does not resemble Adele, but she likes Edna’s work anyway. Edna herself is not satisfied; she crumples the drawing. Adele’s and Edna’s children interrupt the threesome’s conversation. Edna hands some bonbons to her sons, but Adele affectionately gathers her own children into her arms. Robert urges Edna to go for a swim. She complains that she is too tired, but eventually she gives into Robert’s entreaties.
He places her straw hat on her head and they move towards the beach. The Awakening is about Edna’s dissatisfaction with the social constraints on women’s freedom. Therefore, it is significant that it opens with two caged birds. Throughout the novel, Edna feels that marriage enslaves her to an identity she for which she is not suited. The parrot is an expensive bird valued for its beauty. The mockingbird is fairly common and plain, and it is valued for the music it provides. These two birds function as metaphors for the position of women in late Victorian society.
Women are valued for their physical appearance and the entertainment they can provide for the men in their lives. Like parrots, they are not expected to voice opinions of their own, but to repeat the opinions that social convention defines as “proper” or “respectable. ” The parrot shrieks “Go away! Damnation! ” These are the first lines of The Awakening, and they signal the essentially tragic nature of the novel. The parrot speaks French, a little Spanish, and a “language which nobody understood. ” Again, the parrot serves as a metaphor for Edna’s predicament.
As she becomes more defiant, she voices unconventional opinion about the sacred institutions of marriage, gender, and motherhood. Throughout the novel, Edna is misunderstood by her friends, lovers, and her husband. In a sense, she speaks a language that she can make no one understand. The tensions in Edna’s marriage are apparent from the beginning. Leonce does not regard Edna as a partner in marriage, but as a possession. At the same time, he thinks of Edna as the “sole object of his existence. ” Obviously, his actions belie this belief. Leonce’s beliefs about the role of women are strictly defined by Victorian social conventions.
The ideal woman is what Leonce terms the “mother woman” desire nothing other than to “to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” for their families. They are supposed to “flutter about with extended, protecting wings. ” The symbolic function of birds is extremely important in this passage. Women are not supposed to have wings to fly where they want, but to use in the service of their families. They are supposed to sacrifice all their individuality and conform to the identity outlined by social convention. They fly according to the course predetermined by these conventions.
The lady in black is an important symbol in The Awakening because she represents the ideal for the widowed woman. Instead of embarking on a life of independence after fulfilling her duties as a wife, she devotes herself to a religiously devout life. In a sense, her absence of dialogue is like a vow of silence; she hardly exists as an individual. Adele represents the ideal woman in marriage. She is constantly caring for an infant or planning on another one. Edna marvels at the permissiveness of Creole society because everyone, including women, can openly discuss the intimacies of life such as pregnancy, undergarments, and affairs.
Men such as Robert can openly play at flirting with married women, and the women can openly flirt with him as well. However, despite this outward appearance of “freedom,” a strict code of chastity is imposed. The “freedom” itself is permitted only under the expectation that no one seriously act upon it. Robert’s affectionate attentions mimic the standard of courtly love, an essentially medieval concept. Courtly love is not a love that is consummated physically. Outside marriage, this is the only kind of love a woman can have without losing her social respectibility.
A Creole husband is “never jealous” only when his right of exclusive possession of his wife remains unchallenged in any serious way. Edma is slowly beginning to think of herself as an individual with a relationship to the outer world. The “seductive voice” of the sea leads her to moments of “inward contemplation” that have awakened her to vaguely disturbing realizations. Edna is generally reserved. Even as a child, she was aware of the tension between “the outward existence which conforms” and “the inward life which questions. ” During the summer, she has become more open because of her developing friendship the unreserved Adele.
One morning, they go to the beach together. Edna wears a simple muslin and a straw hat, but Adele dresses more elaborately to protect her skin from the sun. At the beach, Edna removes her collar and unbuttons her dress at the throat. Two young lovers enjoy each other’s company while others swim in the cool water. The lady in black reads religious literature on a bathhouse porch. Noting Edna’s thoughtful silence, Adele implores her to reveal her thoughts. Edna replies that the sea reminds her of a day when she walked through a large meadow in Kentucky, spreading out her arms to touch the waist-high grass.
Edna imagines that she was avoiding her father’s stern Sunday Presbyterian services. She conformed to religion after her twelfth birthday, but this summer has revived the “unguided, aimless, unthinking” sensation she experienced in the meadow. Edna and her younger sister, Janet, were never close. Her older sister, Margaret, was always occupied with the household duties after their mother died. Edna’s closest friend was a girl whose intellectual gifts Edna tried to imitate. She experienced intense, unrequited girlhood crushes on various men.
She kept a photograph of a tragedian that she often kissed passionately. She married Leonce because he courted her earnestly and her father and Margaret were opposed to her marriage to a Catholic. Edna felt that her marriage would anchor her to the conventional standards of society and end her infatuation. She is fond of Leonce, but he does not incite passionate feelings. She is “uneven and impulsive” in her affections for her children. When they leave to visit their grandmother, she is relieved because she is not suited to the responsibilities of motherhood. She relates some of the things to Adele.
She likes the freedom to express herself. Robert, followed by their children, interrupts the moment of intimacy between Edna and Adele. Adele asks Robert to walk her back to her house. Adele warns him that Edna might take his attentions seriously. Insulted, he asks why she should not take him seriously because he is not a mere passing amusement. She reminds him that he would not be the gentlemen everyone takes him for if he ever seriously courted married women. He amuses her with a story of Alcee Arobin, who was such a man, and Adele quickly forgets Edna’s susceptible nature.
A few weeks after Adele’s conversation with Robert, a large Sunday celebration takes place because a large number of visitors has come to the Isle. The guests request that the fourteen year-old Farival twins play the piano. They are dressed, as usual, in the Virgin Mary’s colors because they were “dedicated” to her at their baptism. As they play, the parrot shrieks. A small girl executes a flawless skirt dance while her mother watches with apprehension. Robert offers to request that Mademoiselle Reisz play for Edna. Miss Reisz is a middle-aged, unpleasant woman with a tendency to quarrel with everyone.
She is not a good-looking woman, and she has no taste in clothing. However, she is acknowledged as an exceptionally talented musician. She agrees to treat the gathering to a performance. Miss Reisz’s music evokes a tumult of emotions in Edna, and she is blinded by tears. After she finishes her piece, Miss Reisz pats Edna’s shoulder and states that Edna is the only worthy listener in the entire crowd. Nevertheless, her performance arouses everyone’s energy, and Robert suggests they all go for a nighttime swim. During her six years of marriage, Edna did not see herself as an individual with desires and opinions of her own.
However, the seeds for her rebellion against social conventions were already latent. Even as a young child, she was aware of the tension between “the outward existence which conforms” and “the inward which questions. ” Her “awakening” to her own individuality consists of allowing the questioning inner self to direct her actions rather than conforming to outward expectations of feminine behavior. Clothing is an important metaphor in The Awakening. It is important to remember that Victorian women’s clothing was extremely confining. Therefore, it symbolizes the constraints of social conventions on feminine behavior.
It serves as a “cage” because it imprisons the feminine body and hinders freedom of movement. In the beginning of the novel, Edna is fully dressed. When she and Adele walk to the beach, Adele wears a veil, gloves, gauntlets, and elaborate ruffles in order to protect her complexion. She pursues the feminine ideal of beauty. Edna, on the other hand, wears a much simpler muslin dress. Furthermore, she removes her collar and unbuttons her dress at the throat once they reach the beach. Edna’s decision not to wear some of the more confining garments symbolizes her growing rebellion against social convention.
The two young lovers are almost always represented in conjunction with the lady in black. Moreover, the young woman, Adele, and the lady in black represent the stages of a respectable Victorian woman’s life: romantic courtship, marriage, motherhood, and devout widowhood if she survives beyond her husband. The contrast between the lady in black and the young lovers has a symbolic relationship to the love between Robert and Edna. The lady in black represents the logical conclusion to the conventional woman’s life if her husband dies first. However, there is no old couple to represent Robert and Edna’s contented futures.
Therefore, the lovers and the lady in black foreshadow the failure of their love. Furthermore, there is no figure to symbolize the old age of the rebellious woman represented in Edna. The absence of this figure foreshadows Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel. It implies that Edna must choose between conforming to social conventions or disappearing from the symbolic scene of the stages of a Victorian woman’s life. But Edna’s life is full of repressed passion. She experienced a series of unrequited crushes. Perhaps she was afraid of her passionate self because she married Leonce in the middle of an infatuation with a tragedian.
She chose fondness for a husband and children rather than the violent emotions of passionate attachments. She clearly loves her sons, but she is not temperamentally suited to the dictates of conventional motherhood. In truth, there were few alternatives for Edna. She could have chosen to follow her passions and suffered the loss of respectibility or she could have chosen spinsterhood. The Farvial twins were dedicated to the Virgin Mary at birth and they wear her colors. They symbolize the expected destiny for young Victorian girls: chaste motherhood.
The twins and Adele also represent the purpose of an “artistic” education for women. They are not expected to be artists, but entertaining adornments for social occasions. Adele does not play music for her own enjoyment, but to “brighten” her home. Like everything else she does, she plays music in the service of her role as wife and mother. Mademoiselle Reisz, however, is an artist. She plays music for her own enjoyment, and her skill far surpasses that of the twins or Adele. She defies social conventions because she is not married, she does not bother with dressing well, and she does not bother with being “nice. Clearly, she and Adele are foils to one another because Mademoiselle Reisz is always dressed in black, but Adele is almost always wearing white, and both women become close friends with Edna. The language describing the effect on Edna of Mademoiselle Reisz’s music is almost sexual: “[T]he very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. ” Before, Mademoiselle Reisz’s playing only evoked mental images, but within the context of Edna’s growing rebellion, it takes on a more direct, powerful influence.
Edna’s response is connected with a series of awakenings she will experience throughout the rest of the novel. It is connected to her sexual awakening, her artistic awakening, and her awakening to her individual identity. As the crowd makes its way down to the beach, Edna wonders why Robert has become more distant from her. She misses his constant companionship. Most of the people enter the water without a second thought. Although Edna has been unable to learn to swim all summer, she suddenly experiences the desire to swim “where no woman has swum before. ” She boldly enters the water, and everyone applauds her success.
She swims out alone, but she looks back to the shore and realizes how far she has gone. She feels the presence of death and struggles back to the land. She dresses in the bathhouse, and Robert walks her home. She collapses into her porch hammock. In the silence, Edna feels an intense desire for Robert. When they hear the swimmers returning, he bids her good-bye. Leonce returns and urges Edna to go to bed, but she wants to stay outside on the hammock. Her stubbornness irritates him. Neither direct orders nor tender entreaties can budge her, so he sits on the porch smoking cigars until just before dawn.
Resigned, Edna gets up from the hammock and enters the house. She asks Leonce if he will be coming inside soon. He replies that he will once he finishes his cigar. Edna wakes in the early morning. The two lovers and the lady in black, with her prayer book, are awake, but almost everyone else is still asleep. For the first time all summer, Edna sends for Robert by asking one of Mrs. Lebrun’s servants to wake him. Neither she nor Robert thinks it is an extraordinary turn of events. They join some of the other islanders for a boat ride to the Cheniere to attend mass.
They exchange fanciful banter and enjoy one another’s company as always. At the service, Edna feels oppressed, so she stumbles out of the church. Robert follows her and accompanies her to Madame Antoine’s home to rest. Once Robert leaves her alone in a small room, Edna removes a good deal of her clothing and washes up at a basin. After a long sleep, Edna exits the room to find Robert outside alone. She eats some of the dinner that Robert has prepared, and they return to the Isle late in the evening. When Edna returns, Adele reports that Edna’s younger son, Etienne, has refused to go to bed.
Edna places him on her lap to soothe him to sleep. Leonce had been worried when she did not return after mass. After learning that she had merely had gone to sleep at Madame Antoine’s home, he went to Klein’s hotel to discuss business with a broker. Adele promptly returns home because her husband hates to be left alone. Robert bids her good-bye after the put Etienne to bed. Edna remarks that they have been together all day. Waiting for Leonce to return, Edna realizes that she is different from the person she was before the beginning of the summer. She wonders why Robert did not stay with her because he did not seem tired.
Edna has been unable to learn to swim because she is afraid of abandoning herself to the sea’s embrace. Often the sea is described as the voice of seductive longing. It is possible that learning to swim is a metaphor for a sexual awakening. Furthermore, for Edna, learning to swim is akin to learning to walk. When she descends to the beach, Edna is like a “little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who . . . walks for the first time alone. ” Edna’s awareness of herself as an individual with her own opinions and desires takes the form of a rebirth.
Victorian women were often treated as helpless children, leaning on their husbands for their lives. During the first six years of her marriage, Edna resisted Leonce’s will in futile little ways, only to conform to his authority after all. Edna shouts, “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby! ” Her statement contains a dual significance. Literally, the statement refers to Edna’s first successful attempt to swim on her own. Symbolically, the statement refers to Edna’s prolonged “childhood” as a Victorian woman. Edna’s success at swimming also symbolizes her desire to rebel against social convention.
Filled with daring, she wants to swim “where no woman had swum before. ” However, there is a sobering side to Edna’s bold attempt to move out of traditional waters. Edna’s symbolic rebellion literally gets her in over her head. She swims further out alone, and the dread of death seizes her. She struggles back to the safety of land. If we read Edna’s actions symbolically, her rebellious will is not paired with the staying power required to withstand the consequences of defying social conventions. Her failed attempt to “swim where no woman has swum before” foreshadows her eventual suicide.
Edna’s growing sexual awakening becomes apparent when she lies in her hammock while Robert sits on the porch with her. They say nothing, but the silence is “pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire. ” Again, the language suggests a rebirth. During Edna’s six years of marriage, she has been the object of her husband’s desires. In general, respectable Victorian women were not supposed to experience sexual desire of their own. Edna is becoming aware of her own sexual feelings, and they are not directed at her husband. The very possibility of these feelings threatens the conventional structures of gender.
Leonce’s return from the beach adds a sobering tone to Edna’s series of “awakenings. ” She wants to lie in the hammock, enjoying her fanciful reveries, but he expects her to follow him inside the house. In many ways, Leonce functions as a “rude awakening” for Edna. When he returned from Klein’s hotel earlier in the novel, she was reluctant to wake up to listen to him. In response, he concocted a non-existent fever for their son and criticized her for her “habitual” neglect of their children. After the nighttime swim, Leonce awakens Edna from her reverie to demand that she obey him and go to bed.
Edna’s husband has twice awakened her from her brief escapes from the reality of social conventions to demand that she conform to them. Leonce stands guard over Edna as he would a prized possession. Eventually, the pressing reality of her situation sinks in, so she retires to bed. She asks Leonce, “Are you coming in? ” He states that he will go to bed when he finishes his cigar. This scene demonstrates that the conventional structure of power is restored for the time being. Leonce delivers the orders, and Edna obeys. He has the right to decide when he wishes to go to bed, but she does not.
Edna rebels against religion when she attends church with Robert the next day. She feels the weight of oppression, and decides to leave rather than recovering her composure. Her rebellion is significant because religion has long functioned as a justification for assigning women to secondary status to men. She chooses to sleep instead, and this time it is apart from her husband. She suffers no rude awakening, and she gets up when she chooses. One evening at dinner, several people inform Edna that Robert is leaving for Mexico that evening. Robert read to her all morning without mentioning Mexico once.
The dinner conversation degenerates into stories and questions about Mexico and its inhabitants. In her anguished state, Edna can think of nothing to say. After dinner, Edna occupies herself with housework. Mrs. Lebrun sends a message that she wants Edna to sit with her until Robert leaves, but Edna decides to stay home. Robert visits Edna to bid her good-bye for an indefinite period of time. They skirt the issue of their mutual attraction. She asks him to write her and he promises to do so. She sheds tears when he leaves for New Orleans to pack his bags. Edna often visits Mrs.
Lebrun to capture some of Robert’s presence. She reads the letter that he sent to his mother before he departed from New Orleans for Mexico and experiences momentary jealousy that he did not write to her. Everyone thinks it is natural that she should miss Robert. She induces Leonce to tell her about his encounter with Robert in New Orleans before he left for Mexico. She does not think there is anything wrong about pressing Leonce for information because her feelings for Robert are nothing like her feelings for her husband. She considers her emotions her own.
Edna and Adele have a heated argument when Edna says that she would not sacrifice herself for her children. Edna explains that she would give her life for her children, but she would not give herself. Adele laughs and says that she could do no more than give up her life for her children. Shortly before the summer’s end, Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna if she misses Robert. Her question revives anew the knowledge that Robert’s absence has removed the happiness from Edna’s life. She gives Edna her address in New Orleans and urges Edna to visit her. Edna and Leonce’s house in New Orleans is lavishly furnished.
Leonce takes pride in his possessions and he is more generous than other husbands when it comes to domestic articles. Edna usually receives visitors on Tuesday. A few weeks after returning to New Orleans, she and Leonce sit down to dinner, and Edna is wearing ordinary house dress rather than her usual Tuesday reception dress. Leonce learns that Edna was not at home to receive visitors. He becomes angry that she left no excuse for her callers. He fears that her neglect of her social duties will jeopardize his business relationships with the husbands of her visitors.
He complains that the cook has produced a substandard meal, and leaves to take dinner at his club. Edna throws her wedding ring to the floor and shatters a glass vase on the hearth after Leonce leaves. After Edna discovers that Robert is leaving, she returns to her home and exchanges her dinner gown for a “comfortable, commodious wrapper. ” Edna’s shedding of more layers of constricting Victorian dress occurs in conjunction with another rebellion against social convention. When Mrs. Lebrun requests Edna’s company, conventional rules of behavior require Edna to be polite and visit.
She would have to dress again, and she does not want to reassume her constricting clothing. Edna’s conflicted farewell scene with Robert raises questions regarding the nature of his love for her. Robert never addresses Edna directly by her first name. He says, “Good-by, my dear Mrs. Pontellier. ” His language implies that his dilemma is largely one of who has the right of possession over Edna. By calling her “Mrs. Pontellier,” Robert names Edna as the property of Leonce Pontellier. But he calls Edna “my dear Mrs. Pontellier. ” His one expression of affectionate attachment implies a desire for a claim of possession over Edna.
Edna, on the other hand, flies in the face of convention and demands the intimacy they have established. She calls him by his first name when she asks, “Write to me when you get there, won’t you, Robert? ” The nature of Edna’s love for Robert also requires some attention. While she tearfully watches Robert leave the Isle, she finally recognizes “the symptoms of infatuation which she had felt incipiently as a child, as a girl in her earliest teens, and later as a young woman. ” Earlier in the novel, Edna remembers her girlhood infatuations as temporary passions that seem like adolescent crushes.
Regardless of their nature, Edna’s feelings for Robert are intimately connected to her series of awakenings. Through them, Edna has come to recognize her emotions as her own. She does not feel remorse at inciting Leonce to talk about Robert because she has come to believe she has a right to experience her secret emotions. She has begun to think of herself as an independent individual. She declares to Adele that she would give her life and her money for her children, but she would not give herself. Adele does not recognize the distinction. Edna herself does not completely understand her meaning.
What she means is that she refuses “to efface herself as an individual and grow wings as a ministering angel” even though she loves her sons and social conventions demand such a sacrifice. After returning to New Orleans, Edna suffers another rude awakening at Leonce’s hands. Everyone considers Leonce a generous husband because he spares no expense in furnishing his home. However, he does not do it because Edna is the “sole object of his existence,” but for his own satisfaction. He believes his satisfaction should be Edna’s satisfaction. He loves to admire the things he acquires and places “among his household goods,” including his wife.
Clearly, he regards the home and the furnishings as his possessions. For all the material comforts that Edna enjoys, her home is still a gilded cage. Like Mrs. Lebrun regard her parrot as a prized possession, Edna is Leonce’s prized caged bird. Furthermore, his reaction to Edna’s disregard for her Tuesday callers reveals more of his self-centered, controlling nature. He does not express concern that she might be unhappy. He worries only about how her actions affect his social standing. Again, Edna’s rebellion expresses itself through her clothing.
She does not wear her Tuesday reception gown, but an ordinary housedress. She refuses to wear the constricting, elaborate clothing required for the social customs that restrict her freedom to dispose of her time as she wishes. Leonce’s response to her rebellion is to awaken Edna to the reality of social conventions. He complains about the dinner’s quality and states that the cook is getting out of hand. He says that everything goes straight to chaos if one allows the servants to run things the way they want. He adds that his business would go to chaos if he allowed his employees to run things the way they want.
Edna becomes furious when she realizes that Leonce has been referring to her all along. She is the one running things the way she wants, and she is causing the chaos he dislikes so much. Edna throws her wedding ring to the ground because it symbolizes her entrapment within constricting conventions. Her husband has just equated her status with that of a wayward servant or a paid employee. He provides her with a lavish home, so she owes him her complete submission. The next morning Edna tries unsuccessfully to work on some sketches, so she visits Adele, whom she finds folding newly laundered clothing.
Edna mentions that she wants to take drawing lessons as Adele admires her portfolio. Edna gives some sketches to Adele and stays for dinner. Edna leaves their home feeling depressed because the Ratignolles enjoy a perfect domestic harmony that she does not even want for herself. She pities their blind contentment. Edna discontinues her Tuesdays at homes and follows her whims and desires. Leonce is displeased that Edna is no longer submissive to his demands, and her neglect of her domestic duties angers him. He wonders if Edna suffers from some mental disturbance because she is not herself.
However, Edna is only becoming the person she has always been. She spends a great deal of time painting and walking about the streets. Edna decides to visit Mademoiselle Reisz, but she finds that she has moved. Edna visits Mrs. Lebrun, hoping that she has Mademoiselle Reisz’s new address. Victor Lebrun, Mrs. Lebrun’s younger son, answers the door. He proceeds to relate a daring story about his exploits of the night before that entertains Edna despite herself. Later, Mrs. Lebrun remarks that she receives few visitors and that Victor has so much to occult him in New Orleans. Victor directs a knowing wink at Edna.
Edna tries to maintain a matronly expression of disapproval. Victor relates the contents of Robert’s two letters from Mexico. Edna is depressed to find that Robert enclosed no message for her. Mrs. Lebrun gives Edna Mademoiselle Reisz’s address. Victor escorts her outside, and they exchange banter over his exploits. Mademoiselle Reisz mentions that Robert wrote her a letter that spoke only of Edna. Edna begs to see the letter, but Mademoiselle refuses. Edna asks her to play her piano instead. Mademoiselle Reisz notes that it is late and asks Edna what time she must return home.
Edna declares that time means nothing to her, so Mademoiselle asks her what she has been doing with her time. Edna confesses that she has been painting because she is becoming an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz warns her that an artist must be brave, daring, and defiant. Edna persists in her request that Mademoiselle Reisz play for her and let her read Robert’s letter and receives both favors. The music deeply affects Edna, and she weeps as she did before in the presence of the pianist’s talent. She begs to visit Mademoiselle Reisz again, and the pianist tells her to come whenever the whim overtakes her.
Leonce consults Doctor Mandelet, his friend and family physician. Leonce states that Edna is not her usual self, and she seems to be taken with the idea of the rights of women. The doctor asks if Edna has been associating with a circle of women claiming to be intellectuals, but Leonce replies that she no longer receives her callers on Tuesday. Instead she wanders the streets alone until nightfall. Doctor Mandelet questions Leonce regarding Edna’s family background. Leonce assures him that Edna descends from a respectable Presbyterian lineage, although her father lost his Kentucky holdings by running race horses.
Her younger sister Janet is a “vixen,” but she is soon to be married, but Edna refuses to go because she considers weddings a “lamentable spectacle. ” The doctor states that women are moody and eccentric by nature. He assures Leonce that she will eventually return to normal once the whim has run its course. He promises to attend dinner at the Pontellier home in order to study Edna inconspicuously. Before he departs, Leonce tells the doctor that he will soon be making a prolonged business trip to New York and asks if he should take his wife. The doctor replies that he should let Edna decide.
Doctor Mandelet does not ask if Edna’s condition involves another man because it would be improper. The growing contrast between Edna and Adele becomes apparent when Edna visits Adele. As usual, Adele is occupied with some domestic duty. Edna asks for her opinion of her sketches, but she knows that Adele’s opinion means nothing because Adele always says the “right thing. ” Edna wants to hear some encouraging praise because she wishes to pursue art seriously. She can count on Adele to say something nice about her work. Edna’s decision to pursue art seriously is a rebellion against the conventional standards for Victorian women’s education.
The average art education for Victorian women was meant to teach proficiency, not to refine talent. Adele, the feminine Victorian ideal, retains her musical skill to further serve her domestic role, not for her own enjoyment. She arranges musical soirees to establish social relations, not for art appreciation per se. The contrast between Adele and Edna heightens during dinner. Adele is completely subservient to her husband’s opinion. When he speaks, she gives her complete attention, even to the point of laying down her fork to hear him better. The Ratignolles enjoy what Edna considers a “blind contentment. However, Edna does not think they fully experience life because they do no see beyond the narrow confines of conventionality. Edna prefers the wild, erratic range of her emotions to their blind ignorance. Leonce remarks that Edna’s time would be better spent “contriving for the comfort of her family” rather than painting in the atelier upstairs. He remarks that Adele pursues her musical interests by arranging numerous soirees, but she does not slacken in her attention to domestic duties. The implication is that Leonce regards Edna’s comfort as far less important than the “family’s” comfort.
He regards her interests as less important than dinner being served on time. Again, his belief that Edna is the “sole object of his existence” is ironic considering that he continually places Edna’s interests beneath those of himself and the children. If Edna is so important to the health of the family, it would make sense to be more concerned with her feelings and desires. Leonce thinks that Edna is not “herself. ” However, Leonce is blinded by conventional views of women’s behavior, so he does not realize that Edna is beginning to act according to the identity that she has always had.
Edna is gradually discarding the false self that she assumed “like a garment with which to appear before the world. ” It is especially significant that Edna refers to the conventional social identity forced on women in terms of clothing. Throughout The Awakening Edna discards more layers of clothing as she increases her rebellion against the restrictive standards for feminine behavior. As Edna grows more distant from Adele, she grows closer to Mademoiselle Reisz. Mademoiselle Reisz does not conform to the social standards for women. She studies music for her own enjoyment, and she supports herself financially.
Through her relationship with the pianist, Edna is able to further achieve self-realization by sharing artistic interests. It is also through this relationship that Edna can establish a kind of relationship to Robert. The pianist is the only person to whom he speaks of Edna, and Edna is able to read his letters. Everyone else in Edna’s social circle conforms to conventional standards, so there is no possibility of any dialogue about her attraction to Robert. Leonce considers Edna’s unconventional behavior evidence of a mental illness. During the Victorian era, a woman who wanted to act and think freely was often considered “mentally ill. Doctor Mandelet seems to be more enlightened than Leonce in some respects. He advises Leonce to allow Edna to do as she wishes. However, his advice seems to say that Leonce should “humor” Edna as one would humor a willful child. It is unclear whether Doctor Mandelet means to humor Leonce into putting an end to his harassment of Edna by appealing to Leonce’s prejudices. Edna’s father, the Colonel, stays for a few days in New Orleans to select a wedding gift for Janet and to purchase a suit for the wedding. The Colonel retains a certain military air from his days in the service of the Confederacy.
Edna’s two sons seem to annoy him. Edna takes him to one of Adele’s musical soirees, and Adele captivates him with her skilled application of flattering flirtations. Leonce declines to attend because he prefers the company he finds at his club. Adele remarks to Edna that Leonce should spend more time at home in the evenings. Edna serves her father hand and foot because he interests her, but she knows he will soon cease to do so. Doctor Mandelet takes dinner at the Pontellier home, but he notices nothing in Edna’s behavior to arouse concern. Everyone takes turns telling stories for entertainment.
The doctor relates the tale of a woman whose affections stray, but eventually return to the proper source. Edna responds with a story of a woman who runs away forever with her lover. The doctor is the only person who perceives the secret emotions behind it. During his walk home, he muses to himself, “I hope to heaven it isn’t Alcee Arobin. ” Edna and the Colonel engage in a heated argument over her refusal to attend Janet’s wedding, but Leonce does not intervene. Leonce resolves to attend the wedding in order to deflect the insult of Edna’s absence. The Colonel criticizes Leonce’s lack of authoritative control over Edna.
As Leonce’s departure for New York approaches, Edna becomes attentive and affectionate, and she even sheds a few tears when the day arrives. However, she becomes peaceful and satisfied when he leaves. Leonce’s mother, Madame Pontellier, takes Raoul and Etienne to her home in the country for a while. Edna takes to dining alone in her nightgown. Edna attends the races with Alcee Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp, a member of Edna’s social circle. Alcee takes to Edna right away. Edna’s company at the races is highly appreciated by her friends because of her extensive knowledge about race horses.
She gambles very successfully at the races. Alcee escorts Edna home after dinner. He persuades her to attend the races with him again. Edna is restless after he leaves and regrets not asking him to stay for a while. Alcee and Edna attend the races alone. They become easy and familiar with one another because Alcee does not care for the formal stage of building an acquaintance with an attractive young woman. He stays for dinner with Edna afterwards. His familiar way with her makes Edna nervous, so he begs her pardon, but kisses her hand and heightens her discomfort.
Edna is attracted to Alcee, but she feels that she is being led to an act of infidelity. However, she thinks of Robert as the betrayed party, not Leonce. Alcee writes an elaborate letter of apology. Edna responds with light banter, and they begin spending a good deal of time together. He resumes a level of familiarity that sometimes raises a blush on Edna’s cheeks. Edna continues to visit Mademoiselle Reisz in moments of emotional turmoil. During one such visit, Edna announces that she is moving out of her house since it is too much trouble to manage and she does not feel as if it is really hers.
She wants to rent a small house around the block. She plans to pay for it with her winnings and from selling her sketches. Her drawing teacher has told her that her skill is growing more polished. Edna vaguely understands that she wants to own herself rather than belonging to another. As usual, Mademoiselle Reisz gives Edna Robert’s latest letter and proceeds to play her piano. She states that Robert does not write Edna because he is in love with her. He is trying to forget her because she is “not free to listen to him or belong to him. ” Edna discovers from the letter than Robert is returning to New Orleans soon.
During the heated discussion about the nature of love that follows, Edna admits that she is in love with Robert. Edna returns home full of excitement. She sends a box of bonbons to her children and writes a bright, cheerful letter to Leonce stating her intention to move into the smaller house. While Edna’s father visits, she serves him hand and foot. He interests her, but her relationship with him still conforms to the servant and master structure that governs women’s relations to men. In a sense, during the Colonel’s stay, Edna “belongs” to him.
When Edna takes him to one of Adele’s musical soirees, Adele plays the perfect hostess which basically amounts to petting his masculine ego. Doctor Mandelet observes Edna during his in Leonce’s home and decides that nothing is wrong with her because she serves her father with devotion and looks happy in doing so. In short, she seems to conform perfectly to conventional standards of behavior, represented by Adele, by serving a masculine authority in her life. Doctor Mandelet joins in the story-telling by relating the experiences of a woman whose affections stray before eventually returning to their proper object.
From the moment that Leonce consulted him, the doctor has suspected that Edna is in love with another man. His story is a diagnostic tool as well as a subtle suggestion to Edna to think about her actions. His suspicions are confirmed when Edna responds with an incredibly detailed, captivating tale of a woman who runs away with her lover forever. No one else at the dinner recognizes the significance of Edna’s tale. Edna lies when she explains that someone else told her the story, so her tale is clearly a wishful fantasy about Robert.
Doctor Mandelet chooses not to become involved in the matter and hopes that Edna is not in love with Alcee Arobin, the local Don Juan. When Leonce leaves for New York and his two sons leave to visit his mother, Edna begins dining in her nightgown. Once again, she rebels against conventional standards of dress when she lessens her devotion to conventional feminine duties. However, she falls into the company of Alcee Arobin who enjoys making conquests of married women. It is not fair to say that Alcee merely takes advantage of Edna. When he kisses her hand, his action “repels the old, vanishing self in her. Edna has still not discarded the conventional identity against which she rebels. His kiss also awakens the sensuous sensibilities in her, so she is not entirely against his advances. He awakens greater consciousness of her physical desires. Unlike her relationship with Robert, Edna’s relationship with Alcee is clearly more about physical attraction than anything else. If Alcee is guilty of anything it is not respecting the fact that Edna has conflicting feelings about his physical advances. He writes an elaborate letter of apology for kissing her hand. However, he does not really mean to apologize.
Edna cannot ignore his letter because then she gives undue emphasis to his actions. If she writes a serious response, she would imply that she is susceptible to his advances. She replies with light banter, and this gives Alcee the opportunity to pursue her company further. He presents himself at her home and assumes an attitude of familiarity and intimacy with her. Edna decides to move to another house because she does not consider Leonce’s home her home. She prefers to stop accepting the benefits of his wealth because it gives him a claim on her. She plans to pay for the smaller house with her own money.
She can then attend the housekeeping or not according to her own desires without facing Leonce’s reproach. Moreover, she is tired of being treated like the possession of another. Mademoiselle Reisz’s explanation of Robert’s failure to write to Edna revives the earlier hints that Robert’s love is colored with the same notions of possession as Edna’s marriage. She states that Robert loves her. He wants to forget her because Edna is not free to listen to him for to belong to him. Robert does not choose to remain silent because he fears Edna does not return his love, but because he cannot claim ownership of her.
For a man, even Robert, loving a woman means owning her as his property. Mademoiselle Reisz’s language also names Edna’s marriage to Leonce as a form of imprisonment. She is not free because she is married. The symbol of the caged bird to represent the married woman is significant in this passage. Edna has chosen to leave the gilded cage of Leonce’s home for a space of her own. Later that evening, Edna states to Alcee that she does not know what kind of woman she is. By conventional standards, she is a “devilishly wicked,” but she cannot think of herself that way.
Alcee caresses her face. Earlier in the evening, Mademoiselle Reisz felt her shoulder blades and warned Edna that the bird that attempts to fly above tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. She added that the birds that fall back to earth, battered and bruised, are “sad spectacles. ” She asked Edna where she wanted to fly. Alcee kisses Edna, and she responds to his overture with passionate desire. After he leaves, Edna weeps because of conflicting emotions. She does not feel ashamed or remorseful. She fears Leonce’s reproach, but the thought of Robert’s reproach bothers her more.
She regrets that her kiss with Alcee was not motivated by love. Edna prepares for her move to the other house, gathering only the possessions that Leonce did not buy for her. With her own money, she purchases what she needs to adequately supply her new household. One of Edna’s servants calls her new home the “pigeon house” because it is small and looks like one. The name sticks. When Alcee visits her, he finds her dressed in an old dress and a handkerchief, making preparations for her move. Edna invites Alcee to a dinner celebration in the big house the day before her move.
He begs to see her sooner, but she remains firm. The dinner is a small affair. It is Edna’s twenty-ninth birthday. She proposes that they drink to her health with a cocktail invented by the Colonel to commemorate Janet’s wedding. Alcee proposes that they drink to the Colonel’s health with the cocktail because Edna is “the daughter he invented. ” In her magnificent gown, Edna exudes the essence of a woman who “rules, who looks on, who stands alone. ” However, she is overtaken with boredom and hopelessness. She longs for Robert’s company. Someone begs Victor Lebrun to sing.
Looking directly at Edna, he begins a song that Edna remembers as a favorite of Robert’s. Edna orders him to stop. Victor, for whatever reason, continues. She clasps her hand over his mouth and repeats her demand. He agrees, and the guests sense that they should leave. Alcee assists Edna in shutting up the big house and accompanies her to the pigeon house. She finds the house full of flowers that Alcee arranged as a surprise. He makes a point of saying goodnight, but he covers her shoulder with kisses and succeeds in spending the night with her. Leonce writes a letter of stern disapproval for Edna’s move.
He does not fear a scandal, but rather that people will think he has suffered financial difficulties. To head off these suspicions, he arranges to have his home remodeled by a respected architect. In a newspaper, he advertises his intention to take a vacation in Europe with Edna while the remodeling is under way. Edna visits her children at their grandmother’s country home and enjoys herself immensely. Adele visits and complains that Edna has neglected her. She advises Edna to take caution while living alone in the little house. There is gossip about Alcee visiting her.
A stream of callers unsettles Edna’s peace, so she decides to visit Mademoiselle Reisz. The pianist is not at home, so Edna enters her apartment to wait for her. Robert drops in for a visit, reviving anew her agitated emotions towards him. She learns that he returned two days earlier. Edna doubts his love because he did not visit her right away. She asks why he broke his promise to write her, and he replies that he never thought his letters would interest her. She hints that he lies and proceeds to leave Mademoiselle Reisz’s apartment. Robert walks Edna home. Under concerted pressure, he agrees to stay for dinner.
Robert discovers a photograph of Alcee, but Edna says she kept it as a study for a sketch. She states that Alcee is a friend of hers, and changes the subject to Robert’s experiences in Mexico. Mademoiselle uses wings as a metaphor for Edna’s decision to defy social conventions. She warns Edna that her wings must be strong enough to withstand the consequences of defiance. When she asks where Edna wants to soar, she means to ask Edna if she is sure that she can escape her gilded cage. If she fails, she will become one of the “sad spectacles” of the birds who fail.
During her conversation with Alcee, Edna directly voices her desire for self- realization. She wants to become more acquainted with herself, but she cannot do so within the constraints of social conventions. By those standards, she is “wicked,” but she cannot interpret her desire for an independent identity as a “wicked” endeavor. Alcee becomes peevish at her philosophical meandering because he wants her to play the role of the infatuated woman. Clearly, Alcee is used to having the upper hand in his relationships with women. He looks at them as pleasurable conquests.
Edna’s self-directed activities frustrate his attempts to make her a conquest. For all its flaws, Edna’s relationship with Alcee allows her to explore her sexuality. His kiss awakens her physical desire, and she responds to it with passion. However, their purely physical relationship fails to satisfy her, so clearly, Edna will eventually outgrow it. If anything, Alcee is a convenient substitute for Robert now that Edna has finally admitted that she loves him. Edna declared that she would never again be the possession of another. Her incipient affair with Alcee is her first relationship with a man that is not structured by possession.
When he finds her in a frenzy of preparation for her move, she will not agree to see him at his convenience, but at hers. Moreover, he does not find her “languishing, reproachful, or indulging in sentimental tears” as he is used to finding the women he has conquered. Clearly, Edna does not allow her affair to consume her life. She continues to pursue self knowledge and independence outside her relationship with him. Following her decision to move to a her own house, Edna again sheds another layer of clothing. During her preparations for her move, she wears an old gown and a handkerchief.
She calls her house the “pigeon house. ” Considering the symbolic importance of birds in the novel, the name Edna chooses for her house also has symbolic meaning. She has chosen to fly above tradition and prejudice. Her new home is not a gilded cage, but the expression of her quest for independence. Leonce’s reaction to Edna’s decision to move again reveals his self-centered concerns. He does not worry about Edna’s feelings, but about his own financial integrity. His belief that Edna is the “sole object of his existence” is again ironic considering that he cares more about how Edna’s actions affect him.
He does not consider that his own behavior might be partly responsible for her decision. Furthermore, he takes a long business trip to attend to his financial interests even though he consulted a doctor regarding Edna’s behavior shortly before his departure. If he is so worried about Edna’s mental health, why does he place his money before her? Adele does not attend Edna’s party because she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Moreover, when she visits Edna to have a look at her new lodgings, she avoids roads that are “too public. ” As Adele pregnancy advances, she becomes more confined to her home.
Her increasing confinement also contrasts with Edna increasing independence. Chopin clearly means to demonstrate the imprisoning nature of motherhood as it is defined by Victorian social conventions. When Robert accompanies her to her pigeon house, he remarks, “I never knew you in your home. ” Edna hopes that her independence from her husband will allow her to pursue a relationship with him. She interprets his statement to mean that he will cease to relate to her as a society housewife. However, the fact that he even mentions her old life demonstrates that he still views her as the property of another man.
Even though Edna has moved, he still views the big house as her true home. Meanwhile, Alcee makes a call on Edna. He and Robert greet one another and make small talk about Mexican women. Robert takes his leave of Edna and leaves her alone with Alcee. He asks Edna to go out for a nighttime drive, but she states her preference for being alone for the rest of the evening. Edna occupies her time thinking over her encounter with Robert. The next morning Edna awakes with hope. She is convinced that Robert will eventually admit his love for her. She reads letters from Raoul and Leonce at breakfast.
Leonce says he plans to return in March and promises to take her on a vacation to Europe. Alcee sends a note declaring his devotion for her. Edna writes a letter to Leonce that neither lies about her activities nor tells the truth about them. Days pass and Robert does not come to see her. She spends more time in Alcee’s company instead because she does not want to seek out Robert’s company too eagerly. Edna meets Robert by accident in her favorite garden in the suburbs of New Orleans. Robert reacts with uneasiness and surprise at the unexpected encounter.
He consents to share the dinner she has brought for herself and accompanies her back to the pigeon house. He sits in a chair while she retires to wash her face and hands. When she returns to the room, she kisses him and moves away. In response, he takes her into his arms and holds her. He confesses that his trip to Mexico was an attempt to fight his love for her. In Mexico, he fantasized that she could become his wife if Leonce “set her free. ” Edna declares that she is no longer one of Leonce’s possessions and that she will give herself to whom she pleases.
Edna’s servant interrupts them to tell Edna that Adele is in labor and requests her company. She declines Robert’s offer to accompany her. She declares that she loves him alone and asks him to wait for her return from Adele’s house. Edna finds Adele in a state of irritable humor. She begins to feel uneasy. She remembers her own childbirth experiences in a vague, undefined way. She wants to leave, but she stays behind to witness what she now considers a scene of Nature’s torture. Later in the evening, when she kisses Adele good-bye, Adele whispers earnestly, “Think of the children, Edna.
Oh think of the children! ” Doctor Mandelet walks Edna to the pigeon house. He remarks that Adele is “full of whims at such times” and that it was cruel to make her stay. There are other, less impressionable women who could have come. He asks if she will go to Europe for the summer. She replies that she will not because she refuses to be forced into anything anymore. Perhaps only children have the right, but even then she is not sure. Doctor Mandelet remarks that Nature does not consider the moral consequences of the situations it creates.
He assures her that he is willing to hear her confidences should she want to relate her troubles to him. Edna responds that she does not like to speak of her troubles. She does not mind insulting the prejudices of others, but she does not want to ruin “the little lives. ” Edna finds her pigeon house empty. Robert left a note stating that he must say good- bye because he loves her. She stays awake for the whole night. The next day, she travels to the Grand Isle and walks to the beach. She does not care that Leonce will be hurt by her infidelity, but the thought of her sons pangs her deeply.
She regards them as the chains that bind her to a form of slavery she detests. She spies a bird with a broken wing flying erratically before crashing into the surf. She enters the bathroom to put on her bathing suit. Once she reaches the water, she discards it and stands naked in the open air. She swims out without a glance backward. Eventually exhaustion overtakes her and she drowns. Even though Robert continues to avoid her, Edna does not devote herself to pining away for him. She continues with her artistic endeavors, and she does not expressly seek him out.
She certainly suffers some emotional turmoil because of his absence from her life, but her feelings for him do not rule her life. Furthermore, she maintains her affair with Alcee. After Alcee meets Robert in Edna’s new home, he sends her a note declaring his total devotion, and states that he trusts that she returns the sentiment. It seems that Alcee senses a rival in Robert, and he wants some sign from Edna of his right of possession over her. Although Alcee does not necessarily love Edna, he still seems to think that their affair grants him some claim to her.
Meanwhile, Edna continues to increase her independence. She visits a picture dealer to sell some of her sketches. Before, Edna’s drawing master sold her work, but Edna negotiates her own business as an artist. Clearly, Edna has ceased to think of herself in terms of who “owns” her. Therefore, Robert’s declaration of love for her is another rude awakening. He says that he fantasized that she would become his wife if Leonce “set her free. ” Robert views Edna as a caged bird that Leonce must set free despite Edna’s obvious actions to secure her own independence.
Robert continues to view his love through the structures of possession. He does not tell her, “I fantasized that you would marry me. ” He says, “I fantasized that you would become my wife. ” Edna declares that she belongs to herself, she can give herself to whom she pleases. Edna does not see the consummation of her desire for Robert as a transaction that will take place between Robert and Leonce, but one that takes place between her and Robert. Robert does not see it this way. Robert refuses to enter into a relationship with Edna because he refuses to treat her as an independent individual.
Social conventions will not allow Edna to be a mother to her children without effacing her independent identity. Therefore Edna makes the choice she described to Adele at the beach the summer before. She said she would sacrifice her life for her children, but she would not sacrifice herself for them. Many critics interpret Edna’s suicide as the result of her despair over her failed attempt to enter into a relationship with Robert. However, it seems that she commits suicide because she realizes how narrow the chances are of ever achieving recognition as an independent individual.
Throughout the novel, Edna seeks independence. Her series of awakenings are mostly about achieving this goal. She wants to cease being a caged bird. When Edna goes to the beach, she removes all of her clothing and stands naked on the beach. She throws off the final layer of restricting clothing. A bird with a broken wing sinks into the surf. The bird symbolizes Edna’s failure to achieve the very goal that has driven her actions throughout the novel. In the end, Edna’s freedom takes place in death. This is the choice that social convention allows her.