The Awakening

Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-18

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Chapter XVI:

Summary:

In this chapter, Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna if she misses Robert, which causes her to have a series of flashbacks, each having some sort of connection to how she feels about Robert's absence. First, she thinks about how the color seems to have gone out of her life since Robert left and how she constantly wants to talk about him with other people. Frequently, she goes to Madame Lebrun's apartment and looks at baby pictures of Robert, seeing how the child developed into the man. Once, when Madame Lebrun receives a letter from Robert, Edna looks at it and reads it as if it were a precious artifact. In the postscript to the letter, Robert mentions Edna and a book that they had been reading together, and Edna feels jealous that Robert did not write directly to her.

Everyone, including her husband, assumes that Edna misses Robert and considers it natural that she does so. Leónce mentions seeing Robert in the city, and Edna grills him about Robert's appearance and behavior. She does not consider it odd that she speaks of Robert with her husband because she feels like she always has private thoughts that she keeps to herself and that concern no one. She remembers a conversation she once had with Madame Ratignolle, in which she asserted that while she would sacrifice herself for her children, she would never give herself‹that is, that she would never surrender her innermost being to anyone. Madame Ratignolle doesn't really understand her and argues that it is the greatest sacrifice of all to give oneself to one's children.

Back again in reality, Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz discuss Robert. Mademoiselle Reisz informs Edna that Victor, not Robert, is Madame Lebrun's favorite son, and that the reason that Victor is so obnoxious and demanding is because his mother spoils him. She also tells her about a fight that Victor and Robert had over Mariequita, the Spanish girl from the boat. Victor felt that he had some claim over the girl and became incensed when he observed his brother interacting with her. Robert responded by beating his brother. Edna feels upset, although she does not realize that the negative emotion she is experiencing is jealousy. She goes for a swim, and when she gets out of the water, Mademoiselle Reisz invites her to visit her in the city.

Analysis:

Everyone takes it for granted that Edna misses Robert because they assume that their relationship had simply been one of married woman/adoring young man. That type of relationship fits seamlessly into the Creole social order. However, with Robert and Edna's relationship, there is not the same kind of gap between external appearances and emotional reality. Robert and Edna feel things for each other, which is unusual in their Creole culture, which mandates that the married woman/young man relationship be one of one-sided adoration, innocent flirtation, and chastity. Because everyone assumes that their relationship was of the conventional sort, Edna is able to talk about Robert constantly, even with her husband.

The passage where Edna tells Madame Ratignolle that she will never sacrifice herself for anyone, including her children, is very significant. Edna is not exactly sure what she means when she says this, but she is trying to explain how she is unwilling to destroy the integrity of her being. In other words, she is just discovering herself as a whole person, and she will not give that up (her personality, her desires, and her happiness) for anyone, not even her children. Unlike Madame Ratignolle, Edna refuses to define herself by her children.

At the end of the chapter, Edna becomes jealous of Robert and Mariequita's past relationship. Regardless of what actually happened between them, Edna realizes that she cannot know everything about Robert and that she possesses no real claim on him. Furthermore, while her relationship with Robert must always masquerade as friendship, Robert has every right to become sexually involved with Mariequita, or any other unmarried woman that he chooses.

Chapter XVII:

Summary:

The Pontelliers return to their large, neat, and stately house in New Orleans at the conclusion of the summer. Their home is richly adorned, and Mr. Pontellier derives significant pleasure in walking around the house and admiring his possessions. The Pontelliers live a very structured, high-society kind of life. Mr. Pontellier leaves for work and comes home at the same time every day, and on certain nights they go to the opera or the theater. In addition, for the past six years, on Tuesday afternoons, the Pontelliers have a very formal and elaborate reception for callers who drop in spontaneously.

One Tuesday at dinner, however, Mr. Pontellier notices that his wife is dressed casually and asks about the day's callers. Mrs. Pontellier tells him that she didn't feel like receiving callers that day and just went out without leaving any sort of excuse. Upset that his wife is not fulfilling her social obligations, he asks to see the cards of the people who dropped by that day, and he scolds his wife for not paying due respect to certain members of the social elite. The two squabble over the matter, and Mr. Pontellier complains about the dinner and the cook. He refuses to eat his food and leaves abruptly to go to his club instead.

In the past Edna would have been unable to finish her dinner following such an outburst, but this time she leisurely enjoys the rest of her meal and retires to her room. Soon, however, she becomes tormented by jeering voices, begins to shred her handkerchief, stamps on her wedding ring, and throws a glass vase onto the floor. When the maid comes to pick up the broken shards, she returns the wedding ring to Edna, who puts it back on her finger.

Analysis:

This chapter recounts another turning point in Edna's life. In it, she refuses to be merely one of her husband's expensive possessions, like the ones that he walks around admiring in the beginning of the chapter. Not wanting to be simply an ornamental figurine, she decides not to sit around in a pretty dress waiting for Tuesday afternoon callers. By doing so, she is also refusing to help her husband in his never-ending pursuit of money. She is rejecting the rules of high society and deciding what she wants to do instead.

The Pontellier household is no longer a scene of domestic tranquility, but Edna does not seem to mind all that much. The fight that they have over the cook and the dinner is a symbol for the gradual disintegration of their marriage. They cannot even keep up the bare minimum anymore, and Mr. Pontellier prefers to leave his wife's domestic world entirely and to eat in the male-dominated space of his club. Whereas before Edna would have been distressed at her husband's behavior, now she is learning to live with an increasingly irrelevant and distant husband. She enjoys his absence at the dinner table, and only wishes that she were not married to him, not that he were a better husband. Her fit at the end of the chapter is an acting-out of just this desire. In stomping on her wedding ring and shattering the vase, she is expressing her feelings of being trapped in marriage and wanting to break out. She is not bemoaning her loneliness or her wish for a more caring, sensitive husband; rather, she is asserting her independence.

Chapter XVIII:

Summary:

The next day Mr. Pontellier asks Edna to accompany him to buy new fixtures for the library. When Edna protests that they do not need new fixtures and that her husband is too extravagant, her husband replies that there is no point in saving money if one can make more. Pale and weak, Edna stands outside in a daze, failing to see the people on the street in front of her. Retiring inside, she feels relieved that her husband has already spoken to the cook about the quality of her cooking.

Edna gathers up a few of her best sketches and walks to Madame Ratignolle's house, all the while feeling obsessed with Robert. She has kept up her friendship with the Ratignolles and finds their house very pleasant and French. When she arrives, Madame Ratignolle, who looks more beautiful and Madonna-like than ever, puts away her laundry and at Edna's request, begins to look at her sketches. Madame Ratignolle praises her work excessively, which gratifies Edna, even though she knows that her friend is overestimating the quality of her work. Edna wants to seriously study art, and she needs Madame Ratignolle's praise to make her feel more confident in her ability.

Edna gives many of the sketches to her friend and then joins the Ratignolles for a delicious and pleasant dinner. The Ratignolles are perfectly matched to each other, and Madame Ratignolle listens attentively to everything that her husband says. When Edna leaves, she feels depressed, not because she wishes she had the kind of domestic and marital bliss that her friends have, but because she feels like Madame Ratignolle is living a dull and colorless life and failing to expose herself to the exciting experiences that the world has to offer.

Analysis:

Nearly every mention of Mr. Pontellier serves to reinforce his connection with business and monetary greed. He is extravagant to the extreme, concerned almost entirely with external appearances, and almost obsessed with acquiring new objects to put in his home. We can find a literary parallel in the speaker of Robert Browning's dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess" (although Leónce is nowhere near as ruthless as Browning's character).

When Edna consider Robert, she does not so much think about him as feel his presence with her. Her impression of him is very sensory and affects her whole being: her affection for him and her awakening (sexual, emotional, mental) are closely tied together. It is Robert who has triggered Edna's awakening, but as we will later see, this does not mean that he has any special claim on her. Edna is becoming her own person, and no one, not even Robert, who she now yearns for so intensely, can tell her otherwise.

In this chapter Edna decides to seriously pursue painting. In doing so, she is following the example of her friend Mademoiselle Reisz, who is currently living the artistic lifestyle. Like her friend, however, she runs certain risks: of being considered eccentric, of neglecting society and being ostracized, and of being completely left alone. Unlike Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna is already married and part of the New Orleans upper class, so she will generally be humored and praised by people like Madame Ratignolle.

It is fitting that Edna goes to Madame Ratignolle for praise. While Edna is about to depart from convention and devote herself to artistic study, Madame Ratignolle lives a bland life of domesticity. Perhaps Edna is not just seeking praise from Madame Ratignolle, but also a negative example of what she could become if she simply did what society expected of her. In any case, Edna leaves her friend feeling pity for her and the sad, dreamless life that she is content to lead.