The tension and discord between Edna and Léonce at the beginning of the novel foreshadows the drama that will result from Edna’s later departure from social conventions. Léonce does not regard his wife as a partner in marriage but as a possession. When he notices that she is sunburned from swimming, he looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” Léonce’s perception of his wife as property was common in Louisiana society and formalized by its laws. Women were expected to be what the novel terms “mother-women,” who, “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings,” desired nothing more than “to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Here, the wing imagery links women to angels, but it also evokes the earlier symbolism of birds. Again, however, the narrator associates “winged” women with confinement rather than freedom. The “mother-women” have wings but are expected to use them only to protect and serve their families, not to fly. Léonce’s criticism that Edna is a negligent mother reveals that in addition to feeling trapped by society, Edna is shunned by society for her deviation from its norms. Her tearful escape onto the porch prefigures later episodes in which she will similarly defy others by isolating herself from them.
The lady in black, who paces with her rosary beads, demonstrates a different sort of isolation—the patient, resigned solitude of a widow. This solitude is not the sign of independence or strength, but rather manifests a self-abnegating withdrawal from life and passion, undertaken out of utter respect for a husband’s death. Throughout the novel, this black-clad woman never speaks, as if having vowed silence. Her silence contributes to her lack of individuality and her idealization within the text as the socially acceptable widow. Adèle Ratignolle exemplifies many of the same ideals as the lady in black, but she does so in the context of marriage rather than widowhood. She devotes herself solely to her husband and children, seeking nothing for herself.
And yet, notwithstanding her perfection in the roles of mother and wife, Adèle speaks with a candor that amazes Edna. Edna can hardly believe the permissiveness of Creole society in allowing everyone, including women, to discuss openly the intimacies of life such as pregnancy, undergarments, and love affairs. Men like Robert can ostentatiously play at flirting with married women, and the women can freely reciprocate.
Despite this outward appearance of liberty, however, Creole society imposes a strict code of chastity. Indeed, it is only because the rules for behavior are so rigid that a certain freedom of expression is tolerated. A Creole husband is “never jealous” because the fidelity instilled in Creole women from birth ensures that a man’s possession of his wife will never be challenged.
Robert’s affectionate interactions with the women of Grand Isle mimic those of the medieval practice of courtly love. Courtly love was a cultural ideal based on medieval love poetry, in which a relationship developed between a woman and a man who devoted all his actions toward her as an ideal figure. The relationship between the two lovers, however, was entirely chaste. During the middle ages, courtly love provided a woman with an opportunity—other than marriage—to express affection without losing her social respectability. Now, in nineteenth century Creole society, it seems to serve the same purpose. Yet this code of behavior strikes Edna as entirely foreign. Not a Creole herself, Edna has never been exposed to this odd balance of free speech and restrained action. She notices appreciatively that Robert never praises her with the same ambiguity he does Adèle, wavering between jest and earnestness—for she would have found such ambiguity to be confusing, she thinks, and generally “unacceptable and annoying.”