How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!
Edna cannot determine why she initially declined Robert’s offer of a swim when she did wish to go with him to the beach. She begins to feel a strange light within her that shows her the way to “dreams,” to “thoughtfulness,” and to the “shadowy anguish” that brought her to tears the evening Léonce returned from the club. She is slowly beginning to think of herself as an individual with a relationship to the outer world, and the sound of the sea draws her soul to “inward contemplation” and wisdom that are disturbing in their newness and depth.
Edna rarely discusses her feelings and private matters with others. Since childhood, she has been aware of a “dual life—the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” Throughout the summer at Grand Isle, her reserve gradually erodes because of her increasingly close friendship with the candid Adèle. Walking toward the beach arm in arm, the women form a tall, stately pair. Edna, lean and mysteriously charming, wears a simple muslin and a straw hat, while Adèle, typically beautiful in the fashion of the time, protects her skin from the sun with more elaborate dress. The two women sit down on the porch of Edna’s bathhouse, and Edna removes her collar and unbuttons her dress at the throat. The lady in black reads religious literature on an adjacent porch, while two lovers cuddle beneath the vacant children’s tent.
Noting Edna’s thoughtful silence, Adèle wants to know what Edna is thinking, and Edna searches her train of thought to reply accurately. She answers that the sea reminds her of a day when she walked through a large meadow near her childhood home in Kentucky, spreading out her arms as if swimming through the waist-high grass. Edna surmises that on that day, she had been escaping a dreary session of Sunday prayers. Although she insists that she has since adhered to religion out of a firm force of habit, Edna notes that “sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided.”
Edna is confused when Adèle caresses her hand gently. The Creoles’ open expression of affection still surprises her. Edna thinks back to the few relationships she had with other females as an adolescent. She was never close with her younger sister, Janet, and her older sister Margaret was always occupied with the household duties after their mother died. Edna’s girlhood friends tended to be self-contained, much like herself, and her closest friend was a girl whose intellectual gifts Edna admired and imitated.
The relationships that most absorbed Edna were her intense, unrequited crushes on men. Her chain of infatuations was abruptly ended by her marriage to Léonce, who had courted her earnestly. She was pleased by his devotion, and when her Protestant father and sister raised objections to Léonce’s Catholicism, Edna found the marriage even more appealing. But Edna also had other, more serious motivations for the marriage. Still hopelessly passionate about a well-known tragedian of the time, Edna believed that matrimony would end her unrealistic fantasies and anchor her to the conventional standards of society. Thus, she later felt a certain satisfaction in her marriage’s lack of passion and excitement.
Edna’s thoughts turn to her relationship with her children. She considers herself “uneven and impulsive” in her affections for them. She always feels relief when they are sent away to visit family, finding that she has “blindly assumed” the responsibilities of motherhood—responsibilities for which “[f]ate had not fitted her.” She puts her head on Adèle’s shoulder and finds herself expressing some of these thoughts out loud, enjoying the freshness and honesty of her own voice. Robert, followed by the two women’s children, interrupts the moment of intimacy between Edna and Adèle. Edna joins the children, who have now displaced the cooing young lovers under the nearby awning, and Adèle asks Robert to walk her back to the house.
After Edna’s confession of her former passions, Adèle worries that Edna might take Robert’s attentions seriously and warns him to let her alone. Insulted, he impulsively declares that he hopes Edna does take him seriously, as he is impatient with Creole women, who view him as a mere passing amusement. Adèle reminds him that if he were indeed to court married women with any seriousness, then he would ruin his reputation as a trusted gentleman. Robert begins to rationalize to Adèle the appeal of a real affair, then thinks better of it. Instead, Robert launches into stories of a well-known seducer, Alcée Arobin, until it seems Adèle has forgotten about her concern for Edna. Adèle retires to her bedroom while Robert, after a brief search for Edna on the beach, relaxes with his mother at her cottage. The two discuss the impudence of Robert’s brother Victor and chat about the most recent news from Montel, Madame Lebrun’s long-time suitor.
A few weeks after Adèle’s conversation with Robert, Madame Lebrun and her renters hold a Saturday-night celebration to entertain their weekend guests. The party-goers request a piano duet from the fourteen-year-old Farival twins, who, formally committed by their parents at birth to become nuns, are dressed, as usual, in the blue and white colors associated with the Virgin Mary. Several other children perform, and then Adèle plays the piano while the other guests dance. Robert fetches Mademoiselle Reisz, a quarrelsome middle-aged woman, and entreats her to play for Edna.
Whenever Edna listens to Adèle practice her different pieces, images of varying emotions appear in her mind: a naked man staring out at a fleeing bird in “hopeless resignation,” a dancing woman, children at play. But now, as she listens to the playing of Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna sees no pictures of these emotions. Rather, she feels them, and is reduced to trembling, choking tears. As Mademoiselle Reisz finishes and leaves the room, she pats Edna’s shoulder and tells her that she is the only worthy listener in the entire crowd. Even so, the others have clearly enjoyed the performance. Robert suggests that the party go for a nighttime swim.
Edna’s awakening begins slowly and she seems from its beginning to expect disappointment even while she hopes for fulfillment. The dim light that first allows her to see her own latent dissatisfaction in Chapter VI is described as a “light which, showing the way, forbids it,” and the suddenness with which her emotions rise to the surface renders them both disturbing and exciting. Remembering the passionate infatuations that had consumed her before marriage, Edna is suddenly struck by the contrast between those feelings and the feelings she has now in her marriage. Voicing these feelings to Adèle furthers the shedding of her outer layers of reserve, as does her sensual, almost violent reaction to the music played by Mademoiselle Reisz a few weeks later.
The discrepancy between the response Adèle’s piano playing evokes in Edna and that evoked by Mademoiselle Reisz speaks both to the magnitude of the older woman’s talent in awakening long-dormant passions and to the magnitude of the awakening itself. Edna’s jarring physical reaction to Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing testifies to the scope of her dawning self-discovery. Similarly, the nature of her former mental images testifies to the narrowness of her earlier mindset. The piece of Adèle’s that Edna had named “Solitude” conjured in Edna’s mind the image of a naked man who had been left in wretched isolation by a bird. Edna associated deep emotion with a man, ignoring a woman’s capacity for such experiences. The female was symbolized by the figure of the bird, with which the narrative repeatedly associates the Victorian woman. Significantly, Edna does not identify with the bird in her vision but rather with the man abandoned by it. She focused on his loneliness rather than the motivations and aims of the female figure that had left him behind. If, up until Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing, Edna had been out of touch with the female capacity for emotion and initiative, by the end of the novel she will both recognize and realize this capacity. Her internal change will be symbolized by a refiguring of the earlier image, as Edna will emerge naked, as a feminized version of her masculine figure of solitude. The visions described in Chapter IX serve as a mark against which to measure Edna development as the novel progresses.
The secondary characters that surround Edna in these early chapters of self-discovery are quite important. They often foreshadow the later events of the narrative. The two lovers and the lady in black are conspicuously present at the beach, both before and after Edna’s confessions to Adèle. They symbolize two stages in the life of a respectable Victorian woman. The lady in black, a vision of death and mourning, hovers around the innocent young lovers and serves as a constant reminder of the tragedy and isolation that are associated with love in The Awakening. At the celebration, the guests are entertained by the Farival twins, who were dedicated at birth to the Virgin Mary and, thus, represent the expected destiny for young Victorian girls: chaste motherhood. Like Adèle, who continues her study of music in order to brighten and beautify her home, the twins also exemplify the “artistic” woman, who was expected to use art not to express herself, but rather to be socially entertaining. In contrast, Edna will later find her own art, her painting and drawing, to be a source of great private satisfaction and pleasure.