First, let me say that this is not only my first time at the No-Obligation Book Club but my first time in any book club (unless literature seminars in college count), and I’m really enjoying the group dynamic. Your honest, insightful comments got me thinking and changed my perspective a bit on some of the characters; I hope you’ll continue posting!
Back to business: The second third of the novel centers on Edna’s rapidly progressing “awakening” after she returns to New Orleans from Grand Isle. Robert has left for Mexico, but his absence doesn’t make Edna any more content in her marriage or with her life. She starts to neglect—even scorn—her duties as wife and mother; becomes increasingly focused on her artwork; engages in a risky flirtation with a young man, Alcée Arobin; and ends up deciding, without compunction, to move out of her home and into a four-room house down the street.
Kelli pointed out last week that Edna seems very childlike, and after reading her comment I started to look at Edna from this standpoint. She is childlike—in fact, the scene in chapter 14 about Edna’s son not being able to fall asleep seems a vague parallel to her own restlessness and difficulty to please. But I wonder if a more accurate word wouldn’t be adolescent. That gleeful rebellion against authority (in Edna’s case, husbands and social norms); that immediate, mysterious plunge into anxiety and self-doubt; that excuse of “I just don’t feel like it”; that liking male attention but not knowing what to do with it—I have to say, it reminds me a lot of myself as a teenager. And I pity Edna all the more for having to go through this identity confusion while juggling adult responsibilities. She is, we must remember, only 28. Do you think her youth could be an excuse for her actions? Does she even need an excuse?
I also want to talk about Mademoiselle Reisz, who takes a more leading role in this section. What do you think about Edna’s visits to her apartment? Considering that her place is dingy and depressing and that Edna goes there to indulge in sensual pleasures (listening to music, reading Robert’s letters), I can’t help thinking of it as a kind of seedy opium den—something, in a weird way, forbidden. At the same time Reisz is a replacement for Edna’s mother, who died a long time ago. She listens to Edna without passing judgment or trying to control her actions, only in one moment hinting that Edna might deserve someone better than Robert. In that sense it’s a wholesome, almost sublime space. Is Reisz a positive or negative influence? And because, like Maura, I’m always thinking about symbols (thanks, college!), what’s with Reisz not liking water? I thought one meaning of water in this book was art and freedom—so why wouldn’t Reisz, a free artist, like it?
We are sure to see more of Robert in the last third of the book, and I’m curious what will happen. I’m confident now that he at least thinks he loves Edna; he doesn’t see her as a meaningless flirtation. But what about Edna? In chapter 18, Chopin writes:
“It was not that she dwelt upon details of their acquaintance, or recalled in any special or peculiar way his personality; it was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought…which filled her with an incomprehensible longing.”
This tells me that Edna doesn’t so much love him as love the idea of him; perhaps, on Grand Isle, her awakening started independently of him. In herself she had begun to want more meaningful love and he just happened to be available, like when you’re a teenager and your burgeoning sexuality latches on blindly to random targets. Is her love for Robert real or just an infatuation?
On a final note: I’m trying to read from a historical perspective. Living in the age of Sex and the City and Eat, Pray, Love, I have to continue reminding myself that when this book was published, Edna’s journey toward independence and self-discovery was a scandalous idea. (Late-night solo binging on crackers and cheese? Avoiding parties to work on my own stuff? That’s a pretty normal day for me.) Other books from this time period (The Bostonians, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary) also depicted independent females, but one of the reasons Chopin’s book was so controversial was that the author seems to be outright celebrating this kind of lifestyle. Consider this passage from chapter 19:
“It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally…he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
This stuck out at me as Chopin’s endorsement of Edna’s desire to live authentically. What do you think? Is it evident that Chopin supports Edna, or is there more nuance to her portrayal?
Until next time.