“Remember the children!” gasps her friend immediately after a child birth scene described as “torture” by Edna Pontellier. I figured this to be the turning point, where Edna would re-embrace her own family, lover Robert be damned. Instead, Edna stumbles back to her cottage, sits on her porch processing the events of the night (Robert’s declaration, then being summoned to witness the birth of her friend’s baby) and decides she’s remember the children tomorrow, but tonight is about Robert. She fully expects him to be inside, waiting for her. Instead, she finds a note, “I love you. Good bye – because I love you.”
Let me back up. Mrs. Pontelier is a young, 29 year old wife and mother of two boys, residing in New Orleans during the winter and on the Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer. She has a young male companion, Robert Lebrun, who is excessively devoted to her and who falls in love with her, prompting his fleeing to Mexico so as not to act on his desires.
The story begins on Grand Isle, with a parrot squawking in French and disturbing Mr. Pontellier’s newspaper reading. He is described as a 40ish, glasses-wearing, medium height, slender build and “stooped a little.” Mrs. Pontellier seems rather out of his league, beautiful, quick, frank, engaging. In the beginning, Edna is a bit out of it, responding to her husband’s commands without thinking. Her first act of defiance is the night she refuses to come to bed, preferring to linger in the hammock for hours. Her husband comes out and smokes cigar after cigar after cigar, finally she’s cramped and tired and rises from the hammock, asking him if he won’t come to bed, to which he responds, “After I finish this cigar,” ensuring that he has the upper hand.
Edna lacks maternal instincts, “not a mother-woman” who idolizes their children. “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.”
Impulsively, Edna summons Robert to accompany her to church across the bay, but during the service becomes ill and needs fresh air. Robert leads her to a house where she can rest, and she falls into a deep sleep. Upon waking, she is ravenous and devours the meal Robert has scavenged from across the island. They have spent all day together (all the “livelong day”). Robert decides he will leave for Mexico that night to prevent his acting on feelings for Edna.
With Robert gone, Edna continues her transformation at a rapid rate, discontinuing the practice of staying at home on Tuesdays to receive callers, walking about alone in New Orleans until all hours, painting in her atelier, dropping in on Mademoiselle Reisz apartment to listen to the talented pianist play Chopin (I wonder if Kate Chopin was predisposed to like Frederic Chopin’s music?). She finds her voice and begins to use it. Her husband consults a doctor to get to the bottom of her behavioral change, and the doctor observes Edna over dinner, calling her “a beautiful, sleek animal waking up in the sun,” recognizing that she’s clearly in love with someone else.
Mr. Pontellier leaves town for extended business, leaving Edna at “radiant peace” all alone. She views the house in a new light, sitting in each chair and rediscovering each room as if brand new to her. After dinner, she collapses into a chair with Emerson and vows to start anew on a course of improved studies now that her time was completely her own. She paints, she wins money at the racetrack, she decides to move into a small cottage down the street that she can afford on her own without any money from her husband. She orchestrates an elaborate farewell dinner in the big house.
Robert returns from Mexico, stumbles upon Edna in Mdm Reisz’s house. They run into each other a few days later in a quiet corner of the city and renew their acquaintance. Robert confesses his love for her, admitting to a wild dream where he could have her as his wife, and she laughs and says she is no longer her husband’s possession to be given but can give freely of herself. Before they can go any deeper into the conversation, she is swept away to the bedside of her friend giving birth, and Robert escapes with his note. Edna then returns to Grand Isle for one final swim.
Sidenote: books like this make my skin crawl with their 30 page Introduction by some scholar who overanalyzes the descriptions of one particular dinner scene. Reminds me of being back in English Lit classes where the more crap you could spew out your blowhole, the better grade you got. I prefer to consume this book and sit quietly, drinking in the overall texture of the story.
Best vocabulary word to come out of this:
Befurbelowed – to decorate with a ruffle or flounce.