The dinner Edna hosts in celebration of her new home is small and exclusive. Her guests include high-society friends from the racetrack, as well as Mademoiselle Reisz, Victor Lebrun, and, of course, Alcée. Adèle, who is unable to come because she is nearing the end of her pregnancy, sends her husband in her place. Edna has decorated the table and surroundings decadently, and the entire room shimmers with gold and yellow accents. She announces that it is her twenty-ninth birthday and proposes that the party drink to her health with a cocktail invented by the Colonel to commemorate Janet’s wedding. Alcée proposes that they drink to the Colonel’s health instead, to celebrate “the daughter he invented.” In her magnificent gown, Edna seems a woman who “rules, who looks on, who stands alone.” However, she is inwardly overtaken with longing and hopelessness, her thoughts fixated on Robert.
Mademoiselle Reisz and Adèle’s husband take their leave and the remaining guests turn their attention to Victor, whom Mrs. Highcamp has decorated with a garland of roses and a silken scarf, which turn him into “a vision of Oriental beauty.” Someone begs Victor to sing and he accepts dramatically, looking at Edna and beginning, “Ah! Si tu savais!” Edna orders him to stop, slamming her glass down so heavily that she breaks it. Victor, however, continues, until Edna clasps her hand over his mouth and repeats her demand. He agrees, kissing her hand with a “pleasing sting,” and the guests sense that the night has come to a close.
Alcée stays with Edna after everyone has left and assists her as she shuts up the big house. He accompanies her to the pigeon house, which he has filled with flowers as a surprise. He tells her he will leave, but when he feels her beginning to respond to his caresses he sits beside her and covers her shoulders with kisses until she becomes “supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties.”
The pigeon-house pleased her . . . There was . . . a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.
Léonce writes a letter of stern disapproval in response to Edna’s move. He does not question her motives but worries that people will think he is suffering financial difficulties. To avert these suspicions, he arranges to have his home remodeled by a respected architect. In a newspaper, he advertises his intention to take a vacation abroad with Edna while the remodeling is under way. In her husband’s continued absence, Edna feels her sense of individuality and spirituality growing. She visits her children at their grandmother’s country home in Iberville and enjoys herself so much that she continues to think of their voices and excitement throughout her trip back to New Orleans.
Adèle pays Edna a visit. She inquires about the dinner party, inspects her friend’s new home, and complains that Edna has neglected her. She confesses to Edna that she worries about the impulsive and reckless nature of her actions, adding that perhaps she should not be living alone in the little house. As she leaves, she warns Edna to be careful of her reputation, as there is gossip about Alcée’s visits and “his attentions alone are . . . enough to ruin a woman’s name.” After a stream of callers interrupts Edna’s painting, she decides to visit Mademoiselle Reisz. The pianist is not at home, however, so Edna enters the apartment to wait for her. She hears a knock at the door and gasps in surprise when she sees the caller is Robert, who has been back in town for two days. Edna begins to doubt his love, wondering why he hadn’t come to see her immediately. Robert’s speech is rushed and embarrassed; only during a brief pause do his eyes reveal to Edna the same tenderness she had seen on Grand Isle. She asks why he broke his promise to write her, and he replies that he never supposed his letters would interest her. Edna says that she doesn’t believe his excuse, and she decides that she will not wait any longer for Mademoiselle Reisz’s return.
Robert walks Edna home, and she invites him in for dinner at the pigeon house. She revels in the thought that her dreams are now coming true. At first Robert declines her offer, but, when he sees the disappointment and pain in Edna’s face, he soon consents. Inside, Robert discovers a photograph of Alcée that Edna claims she has kept as a study for a sketch. His repeated questions about the photograph manifest his suspicions and Edna quickly changes the subject to Robert’s experiences in Mexico. He tells her that he worked machine-like the whole time, devoting his thoughts solely to the time he spent with Edna on Grand Isle and the Chênière. When he asks about her own experiences in New Orleans, she echoes his nostalgic words almost verbatim. He tells her, “Mrs. Pontellier, you are cruel.” They remain in silence until dinner is announced.
During dinner, Edna and Robert lose their earlier honesty and vivacity and become stiff and ceremonious. After they have eaten, they sit in the parlor, and Edna questions Robert about the young Mexican girl whose gift of a tobacco pouch has become the topic of discussion. Alcée drops by with a message for Edna about a card party. As soon as he sees Robert, Alcée begins to talk about the seductive beauty of Mexican girls. Robert is on edge and answers somewhat coldly. Soon afterward, he takes his leave of Edna, who remains with Alcée. Alcée asks Edna to go out for a nighttime drive but she sends him away, preferring to be alone. For the rest of the evening she thinks over her encounter with Robert, feeling suddenly distant from him and moved by pangs of jealousy as she imagines him with a beautiful young Mexican girl.
The next morning Edna awakes with hope, convinced that she has overreacted to what she perceived as Robert’s reserve of the night before. She tells herself that she will undoubtedly receive a visit from him that afternoon or evening. At breakfast, she reads letters from Raoul and from Léonce, who indicates his plans to return in March to take her on a journey abroad. Alcée has also sent a note, declaring his devotion and his trust that, however faintly, Edna returns his affection. She writes back cheerfully to her children and puts Alcée’s note under the maid’s stove-lid, choosing not to respond. Her response to Léonce’s letter about the proposed trip is evasive. Edna does not intend to mislead her husband, but she is unable to conceive of the vacation or, for that matter, of reality, because “she had abandoned herself to Fate and awaited the consequences with indifference.”
Days pass without a visit from Robert. Edna does not wish to visit Mademoiselle Reisz or Madame Lebrun because she fears that they may think she is eager to seek out Robert’s company. She awakes each morning in a state of hope and expectation, but retires each evening in despair. One night, she accepts Alcée’s invitation to accompany him out to the lake; afterward they return to her home, slipping into the physical intimacy that has become more and more frequent between them. Lying in bed that night, Edna feels freed of despondency, yet the next day she fails to feel the sense of hope that has greeted her on the past several mornings.
Although Edna does not miss the duties and limitations of her past, she has begun to feel the isolation of her current lifestyle. Her isolation is alleviated only by lust, not by the more genuine, purer kind of emotion she shares with her sons. Her visit to Iberville reveals that Edna still feels a sense of responsibility to her children, despite her feeling that she is no longer bound by matrimonial duty. Whereas Edna resented her obligation to her husband, her responsibility to her sons is pleasing. Edna’s unhappiness about leaving her children suggests a developing, although still unconscious, understanding of the effect her infidelities will have on the lives of her boys. Consciously, however, Edna thinks only of Robert’s return, dwelling on the idealized version of true love that she believes awaits them.
When Robert does return, the romantic, dreamlike reunion that Edna had imagined is replaced by an uncomfortable sense of tension. As they walk past her former home on the way to the pigeon house, Robert remarks, “I never knew you in your home.” Edna’s glib reply—“I am glad you did not”—reveals her unrealistic expectations for their relationship. She simplistically assumes that her new home and new independence will foster a love untainted by her past life, and she believes that Robert will be able to see her only as she is now, untethered from her prior identity. But Robert’s behavior shows that he does not believe the past can be so easily laid aside and forgotten. He continues to call Edna by her married name, he mentions Léonce several times, and he refers to the Pontellier mansion as Edna’s “home,” not as her former home. The lovers’ contrasting attitudes toward Edna’s past foreshadow the opposing decisions the two will make at the end of the novel, when faced with the prospect of honoring their emotions only by way of adultery.
The photograph of Alcée mars Edna and Robert’s evening alone on at least two different levels. As a suggestion of a third presence, it shatters their temporary illusion of being a world unto themselves. It also may serve to subtly weaken the bond they share by lowering Edna in Robert’s esteem. Although the text does not state whether Robert knows about Edna’s affair with Alcée, it is clear that he is aware of Alcée’s reputation. He is shocked when he discovers Alcée’s photograph in Edna’s home, and in Chapter VIII he tells a disapproving story about Alcée to Edna and Adèle on Grand Isle. Robert may have begun to wonder whether Edna is easily seduced.
Robert reacts to Alcée’s arrival at the pigeon house after dinner as he reacted to her photograph. As if yielding to Alcée’s higher authority, Robert leaves Edna immediately. Alcée’s later comments indicate that he had been unaware of Edna’s acquaintance with Robert, which renders ironically accurate Alcée’s unknowing comment, “I am always less fortunate than Robert. Has he been imparting tender confidences?” Edna will have nothing to do with her lover because she is too consumed by thoughts of her confusing reunion.
Since they first met, Edna and Robert have been misunderstanding one another with increasing severity. On Grand Isle, they understood each other and the time they spent together was harmonious. Since Robert left for Mexico, he has not communicated with Edna at all. She learned of his feelings indirectly, by reading his letters to Mademoiselle Reisz. Now, their renewed relationship is fraught, for the first time, with miscommunication. When Edna echoes almost verbatim Robert’s expression of his nostalgia and misery during their time apart, he misunderstands her mimicry of his statement to be a form of mockery and consequently declares her “cruel.” And, although Robert stays away from Edna because he recognizes the impossibility of their union, Edna doesn’t understand his distance and soon returns to her former depression and hopelessness.
Thus, when she sees Alcée again, she is so consumed by her unrequited passion for Robert that Alcée’s touch provides the only possibility for peace, however fleeting. Robert is now much nearer at hand than he has been for the past months, but she turns to Alcée for lustful satisfaction. In doing so, Edna is for the first time utterly honest about her sexual needs. She finally admits to herself that her affair with Alcée has not been solely in anticipation of Robert’s return but also in response to the sheer, anarchic passions raging within her, independent of any emotional devotion. Her forthright acknowledgment of her desire marks the completion of her sexual awakening.