Her name was Adèle Ratignolle. There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams.
In Chapter IV, Chopin introduces Adèle as the embodiment of Victorian womanhood. She is a “mother-woman”—or a woman who lives solely for her husband and children. By comparing Adèle to a heroine of days long past, Chopin makes clear that Adèle represents the idealized version of womanhood, which sets her up as foil for Edna, who has neither the desire nor the capacity to attain such status.
That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her. There may have been—there must have been—influences, both subtle and apparent, working in their several ways to induce her to do this; but the most obvious was the influence of Adèle Ratignolle. The excessive physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had a sensuous susceptibility to beauty. Then the candor of the woman’s whole existence, which every one might read, and which formed so striking a contrast to her own habitual reserves—this might have furnished a link.
By Chapter VII, Adèle and Edna are developing a friendship that will have significant implications. Adèle introduces Edna into a world in which people acknowledge and speak of their emotions. She makes Edna feel comfortable with physical affection as well. Both of the influences stir Edna’s awakening and make her receptive to sharing her feelings and body with others.
“I don’t know what you would call the essential, or what you mean by the unessential,” said Madame Ratignolle, cheerfully, “but a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that—your Bible tells you so. I’m sure I couldn’t do more than that.”
After Robert has left Grand Isle, Adèle and Edna argue about how much of herself a mother owes her children. When Edna says she wouldn’t give “myself,” Adèle fails to understand. She is unable to do so because she and Edna approach the issue from drastically different vantage points. Adèle has no “myself” outside of her identity as a wife and mother, and to a lesser extent, a friend, so to her Edna’s words are nonsensical.
His wife was keenly interested in everything he said, laying down her fork the better to listen, chiming in, taking the words out of his mouth.
This sentence describes Adèle and her husband, Monsieur Ratignolle, and reveals the depth of their closeness and the way that Adèle builds him up. Adèle and her husband are in sync, constantly. Adèle hangs on his words and bolsters them up. She is a perfect helpmate to her husband, respecting, understanding, and enhancing him.
“There’s Madame Ratignolle, because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything go to chaos.”
In rebuking Edna for dropping her familial and societal obligations, Léonce highlights Adèle as the exemplar of nineteenth-century womanhood. Adèle takes care of her family and still has time for genteel hobbies. Léonce’s remark reinforces the idea if a woman wants to be something other than the ideal mother-woman, society offers few options and no approbation.
Madame coquetted with him in the most captivating and naïve manner, with eyes, gestures, and a profusion of compliments, till the Colonel’s old head felt thirty years younger on his padded shoulders. Edna marveled, not comprehending. She herself was almost devoid of coquetry.
In Chapter XXIII, Adèle playfully flirts with Edna’s father, amazing her friend who lacks the ability to act in such a frivolous manner to bolster any man’s ego. Once again, Adèle demonstrates that she knows how to play by and prosper in the rules of her society. Moreover, Adèle’s success in her role shows that she understands and supports these conventions.
She was still stunned and speechless with emotion when later she leaned over her friend to kiss her and softly say good-by. Adèle, pressing her check, whispered in an exhausted voice, “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”
Adèle has just given birth to another baby when she selflessly implores Edna to remember her children. Even at such an intensely personal, painful, and self-reflective moment, Adèle’s thoughts turn to Edna. Adèle suspects Edna is drifting from her family so she reminds Edna of all she stands to lose and the innocent children she could harm with any indiscretion or any leave taking.
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