The Awakening

The Awakening Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-21

Chapter XIX:


Edna decides that it was silly of her to stamp on her wedding ring and break the glass vase and decides to do what she wants without apology. She stops receiving guests on Tuesday, neglects the social obligations that her husband expects of her, and instead paints all the time in her atelier. Naturally, her husband becomes peevish and demands to know what is going on. Edna brusquely says that she just wants to paint and that he shouldn't bother her; her husband thinks his wife is becoming mentally unstable. In reality, however, Edna is just expressing her true self, free of the false social constraints that earlier made her be a dutiful, quiet wife.

Mr. Pontellier does leave his wife alone, and she gets her two sons, the nurse, and the maid to all sit and model for her. While she paints, she sings the song that Robert used to sing, "Ah! si tu savais!" and she feels transported back to the ocean and overwhelmed with desire for her friend. Edna has intense mood swings without knowing why: on some days she is ecstatic and her senses are heightened, while on others she is plunged into the depths of depression and feels like life is pointless.


In regretting the childish tantrum she threw in stomping on her wedding ring, Edna is growing in maturity. No longer does she need to express herself through adolescent rebellion; instead she is realizing that she can quietly and maturely just do what she wants. However, this does not necessarily mean that Edna is becoming more reflective or self-aware. In fact, she does what she wants simply because the moment seems right.

While her husband is upset to see Edna neglect her domestic duties, he accepts her sudden change in behavior without much of a fight. He is surprised to see Edna asserting herself, but he does not appear particularly threatened or resentful. Instead, he seems to be such a peripheral figure in the household anyway that it seems to make little difference whether or not Edna speaks to him.

Edna does not seem to be painting because of any deep-seated artistic conviction. While she spends a lot of time painting, her attitude towards it seems casual, almost dilettantish. She tells her husband that she is not a painter and that maybe one day she won't feel like painting any more. In fact, she seems to have taken up painting because it is the only way she knows how to break free from the life she has been leading. Painting allows her to organize her time differently, to spend a lot of time in a distant part of the house, and to alter her relations with the people around her (by making them sit as models). In short, painting allows her to redefine herself and her relations to others.

Chapter XX:


One day when she is feeling depressed, Edna decides to go visit Mademoiselle Reisz, but when she goes to her apartment, she finds new occupants there and is unable to discover from the neighbors where her friend has moved to. She decides to ask Madame Lebrun and heads over to her house, which is very gated and prison-like. When she rings the doorbell, Victor answers, looking very pleased to see her. He violently scolds a black servant and tells her to fetch Madame Lebrun, and then the two friends sit out on the porch. Victor informs her that he has been staying at the island and just came over yesterday on the pretense of doing business, but in reality just for a little fun. He begins to tell a racy story about a flirtatious girl but is interrupted by his mother's entrance.

Friendly and hospitable, Madame Lebrun complains a little about how boring it is in the city since everyone, even Victor, is always occupied with work. Victor winks at Edna, who tries to appear grown-up and proper. Victor recites the contents of two letters from Robert for Edna's benefit. Robert writes about his business prospects and describes life in Mexico, but he encloses no special message for Edna, who becomes depressed about the fact. Edna remembers to ask for Mademoiselle Reisz's address, and Victor escorts her out the door. After she leaves, mother and son agree that Edna looks ravishing and much more beautiful than she did in the city.


This chapter emphasizes the position of social marginalization that Mademoiselle Reisz occupies. The neighborhood grocery store owner calls her the most disagreeable woman that ever lived, which seems a bit strange considering how pleasant she is to Edna. Mademoiselle Reisz clearly chooses who she wants to be nice to and does not pretend to like people. An unmarried woman who lives as an artist, Mademoiselle Reisz further disregards social convention by refusing to keep up a façade of politeness and amiability. She isolates herself from people and lives as she chooses, and her behavior represents an extreme that Edna is tending towards, though to a lesser extent.

Victor's behavior contrasts sharply with that of his brother Robert. Victor represents the cultural stereotype of the French Creole in New Orleans: he is hot-headed and passionate, devilishly good-looking and carelessly gallant. He is everything that the typical "American" reader of the day would expect a French Creole young man to be. Unlike Victor, Robert is not simply toying with Edna's emotions and trying to seduce as many women as possible. He cares about her and is careful to distance himself from her because he wants to behave in an honorable fashion. Victor's depiction in this chapter indicates exactly how restrained his brother Robert is behaving.

Chapter XXI:


Edna goes to Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment, which while not exactly squalid, is quite close and cramped. When her friend sees her, she bursts into delighted laughter, and Edna notices how homely and shabby she looks. Mademoiselle Reisz expresses surprise that Edna has actually come to visit her and says that she did not really expect someone so high society to drop by. She remarks that she doesn't know if Edna really likes her or not, and Edna candidly replies that she doesn't know either. Mademoiselle Reisz serves her a mid-day snack and informs her that she has received a letter from Robert and that it mentions her nearly every other word. Edna asks repeatedly to see it, and each time Mademoiselle Reisz refuses. When they finally change the subject, Edna tells her friend that she is painting and becoming an artist. A blunt and honest woman, Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna does not know her well enough to know whether she possesses the "courageous soul" that is necessary to become an artist.

Edna demands to see Robert's letter and that her friend play the Impromptu, and Mademoiselle Reisz finally acquieses. As Edna reads the letter, Mademoiselle Reisz plays an improvisation, which gradually transforms into the Chopin Impromptu. The shadows lengthen, and the music fills the room, once again arousing strange, inchoate emotions in Mrs. Pontellier. Sobbing, Edna leaves the apartment, asking if she can come again. When she leaves, Mademoiselle Reisz picks up Robert's letter, which is crumpled and wet with Edna's tears.


Considering what a bad reputation Mademoiselle Reisz has among her former neighbors, she is rather pleasant when Edna comes to see her. Even though they are sarcastic and openly express ambivalence about seeing each other, their honesty seems to draw them closer. Both of them say what they mean, even if it may be slightly insulting or rude. Perhaps they get along because of their shared musical interests. When Mademoiselle Reisz plays the piano, she holds nothing back and can stir up such profound emotions in Edna as to make her weep. Through music, Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna expose the innermost parts of themselves to the other, so that there is no need for artificiality or feigned politeness in their everyday discourse.

Mademoiselle Reisz also begins to play the role of intermediary for Robert and Edna. She will help Edna to realize that she is in love with Robert, and she encourages this love by showing Edna the letters he has written. However, Mademoiselle Reisz is not being a meddling matchmaker. Through her music, she is helping Edna to realize that she is a sensual being, with confusing emotions and an intense appreciation of beauty. She is teaching her to be strong and courageous and to be unafraid to confront emotion and art directly. Having lived her own life and pursued her own interests, Mademoiselle Reisz is trying to be a guide and a mentor to a younger and very impressionable woman.