The Awakening Summary and Analysis
by Kate Chopin
Mrs. Pontellier is described as generally being reserved, and for the first time begins to share her thoughts with Madame Ratignolle, who she finds sensuously beautiful. One morning the two go down to the beach together, except for some needlework that Madame Ratignolle cannot leave behind, and they pass by lush beach vegetation. According to the narrator, Mrs. Pontellier is subtly beautiful and sophisticated; only at second glance does one notice her grace and poise. She is dressed in loose-fitting clothes with clean lines, while Madame Ratignolle is wearing an all-white outfit with a lot of ruffles and frills that protect her entirely from the sun.
It is a very hot, bright and windy day, and the two sit on the beach, looking out into the ocean. Mrs. Pontellier is reminded of herself as a child, on a hot, sunny day in Kentucky, walking "idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided" through a field of grass. She compares that day in Kentucky with how she feels now. Madame Ratignolle holds her hand, and surprised by the intimacy of the action, Mrs. Pontellier begins to describe her past and current emotional attachments to her friend. She was not close to her two sisters Janet and Margaret, and all her friends had been reserved like her. As a young girl she had crushes on unattainable men: a Confederate soldier who was friends with her father, an engaged man who knew her sister Margaret, and a famous tragedian, the love of her life.
She married her husband because he adored her, and because by marrying a Catholic, she could rebel against her family. She grew to love her husband in a friendly way and was fond of her children, although it made no great difference to her whether they were present or not. While Mrs. Pontellier is speaking to Madame Ratignolle, Robert joins them with their children, and the intimate conversation is broken up. Complaining of bodily pains, Madame Ratignolle asks Robert to escort her home.
The first paragraph of this chapter is very significant: it describes Edna as outwardly conforming, yet inwardly questioning. Over the course of the novel, Edna will reject this specific outlook and will want to act only in ways that she considers consistent with her personality.
On an island where all the husbands are off working in the city, Edna and Madame Ratignolle's relationship indicates the closeness of female-female relationships. Edna is attracted to her friend's beautiful appearance; their ability to communicate and understand each other is described not as sympathy, but rather as love; and their interaction in this passage is highly eroticized. Edna's ability to share her feelings and thoughts with Adèle highlights her inability to do so with her husband or with anyone else. Her husband fails to emotionally connect with her, but also, Edna has been raised in a Presbyterian household in which sensuality and depth of emotion are not generally revealed. Possibly, Edna is able to talk with Madame Ratignolle only because her friend, as the incarnation of femininity and motherhood, knows how to respond to others and minister to their emotional needs.
In any case, for the first time Edna shares her innermost thoughts with another person and dwells for some time on the image of her walking through an enormous field in Kentucky. This image is significant because it links her present confusion and directionlessness with the feelings she had as a young, innocent child. Edna's awakening is a rebirth and a return to innocence, not a descent into moral depravity. Her future actions are thus not the actions of a cynical, jaded woman, but of an excited person seeing things clearly for the first time.
On her way back home, Madame Ratignolle asks Robert to cease following Mrs. Pontellier around, saying that his adoration may be misconstrued and that the other woman may not understand the love-game he is playing. Robert becomes offended and demands to be taken seriously, but soon changes the conversation by talking about Alcée Arobin, a noted philanderer. When they arrive at the Ratignolle house, Robert apologizes for his outburst and explains that he should be the one warned about not taking his own actions seriously.
After volunteering to make Madame Ratignolle some bouillon, Robert looks at the people on the beach. He sees two lovers, who reappear throughout the book, and goes to visit his mother, who is sewing. He asks where Mrs. Pontellier is and, at his mother's bidding, tries to call out the window to his younger brother Victor, who ignores him. Annoyed, Robert volunteers to beat some sense into Victor, and his mother laments that his father is deadher common complaint whenever anything goes wrong. When Madame Lebrun tells him that his plans to go to Vera Cruz are looking promising, Robert becomes very excited, only to suddenly lose interest and rush out of the room when he hears that Mrs. Pontellier is passing by.
In this chapter Madame Ratignolle makes a distinction between external appearances and reality. She worries that Edna will mistake what appears to be a romantic relationship between her and Robert for the real thing. For her, it would be natural for Robert and Edna not to take each other seriously and to act as if they were lovers, though everyone knows that they're not. In other words, their relationship is assumed to be innocent, even though, according to Creole custom, the man acts as if he is in love with the married woman. Robert becomes angry when Madame Ratignolle assumes that his behavior towards Edna is simply a show. Although he is unwilling to admit that he is in love with Edna, neither does he want his very real emotion trivialized as simply a formality. He expects his inner emotions to be expressed as actions, just as Edna will later as the novel progresses.
In contrast to his impulsive younger brother Victor, Robert is the responsible son in the Lebrun family. Whereas Victor ignores his brother's calls and rushes off wildly in this chapter, Robert is concerned about his business prospects and excited to hear that his mother has more news about Vera Cruz. However, though he places a lot of importance on his future employment, he rushes off at a moment's notice as soon as Mrs. Pontellier appears. His actions do not differ all that much from Victor's, even though Victor is characterized as the more impetuous of the two. It is important to note that Robert doesn't even bother to listen to his mother's answer about Vera Cruz and instead rushes off to join Edna.
On a Saturday night a few weeks later, a lot of menhusbands, fathers, and friendsstay over at the island, and Madame Lebrun arranges a night of entertainment and festivity. First, some of the children spontaneously decide to perform for the audience: a pair of twins play the piano, there is a recitation, and a very prissy and proper little girl performs a skirt dance. Then, everyone decides to dance, and Madame Ratignolle, who keeps up her music in order to make her home seem more pleasant, accompanies on the piano.
After dancing with her husband, Robert, and Monsieur Ratignolle, Edna goes out on the porch to observe a beautiful view of the moon. Robert joins her and volunteers to get Mademoiselle Reisz to play the piano for her. Mademoiselle Reisz is an eccentric, grumpy, and rather ugly woman, and she asks Mrs. Pontellier to decide what she should play. A little embarrassed, Mrs. Pontellier tells Mademoiselle to play whatever she wants.
Mrs. Pontellier, who enjoys music, often listened to Madame Ratignolle practice the piano. The music would evoke very clear visual images in her mind that she associated with various emotions: hope, longing, despair, and most frequently, solitude. While listening to Mademoiselle Reisz play that night, she expects similar visual images to be conjured up, but instead, she experiences the emotions directly and intensely. Trembling with passion, Mrs. Pontellier begins to weep, and Mademoiselle Reisz, after playing her last Chopin prelude, tells her that she is the only one worth playing for. The others are similarly touched with emotion and want to go to bed, but Robert proposes going for a midnight swim.
In this chapter we are reminded to what extent the island is a female-dominated space. During the week the husbands are away on business in the city, and only on certain occasions, such as the party described in this passage, do men return to the island. While the wives are on vacation by the ocean, their husbands do not play a very prominent role, and in Edna's case, are almost entirely irrelevant. Women generally occupy themselves with their children and their domestic duties, and their husbands work to support the family.
Mademoiselle Reisz is unlike any of the high-society wives on the island, and she exists as a kind of warning to Edna and her counterparts. Unlike the other women, Mademoiselle Reisz has never married and lives alone, pursuing her musical interests. However, the price she pays for such independence is social isolation and a reputation for eccentricity. There is no middle ground: Mademoiselle Reisz can ignore social constraints only by completely thwarting them, driving people away from her, and living at the outskirts of social respectability.
However, when she plays the piano, she unleashes such emotions that Edna cries. Edna cries for a number of reasons: because she is a bundle of new, confusing, and intense emotions that she does not yet know what to do with, because she feels the first stirrings of her own artistic temperament, and because she is ready for the first time to completely open herself to the sensations of the outside world.
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 28-30
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