She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost every one, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others.
In Chapter 9, Mademoiselle Reisz is introduced as an unpleasant woman but a talented pianist. Mademoiselle Reisz is an anomaly in her time period. She is unmarried and aggressive, and her music is her driving passion in life. A woman who goes against societal norms would need to be “self-assertive.” The typical woman of her time is supposed to be married and follow her husband’s lead.
“You are the only one worth playing for. Those others? Bah!” and she went shuffling and sidling on down the gallery toward her room.
After playing for the crowd on Grand Isle, Mademoiselle Reisz singles Edna out as fellow passionate artist. While she does not yet know that Edna is a painter, Mademoiselle Reisz can identify a kindred spirit in Edna’s strong reaction to her music. This similarity leads Mademoiselle Reisz, who dislikes most people, to seek out a friendship with Edna.
”Yes,” she went on; “I sometimes thought: ‘She will never come. She promised as those women in society always do, without meaning it. She will not come.’ For I really don’t believe you like me, Mrs. Pontellier.”
Mademoiselle Reisz confronts Edna with these words when the younger woman at last seeks her out in New Orleans. These words show Mademoiselle Reisz’ outsider status in New Orleans society, just as she was an outsider on Grand Isle. They also reveal that Mademoiselle Reisz understands her assertive, honest manner is off-putting to many people, even those she hopes to cultivate.
“And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.”
These words are Mademoiselle Reisz’s reaction to Edna’s announcement that she plans to become an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz continues to explain that the artistic soul must dare and defy. Her sentiment reflects reality. To fully embrace her music, Mademoiselle Reisz has had to reject the typical trappings of womanhood, namely, getting married and having children. She questions whether Edna, who has been following the expected path, is brave enough to make this choice.
If Mademoiselle happened to have received a letter from Robert during the interval of Edna’s visit, she would give her the letter unsolicited. And she would seat herself at the piano and play as her humor prompted her while the young woman read the letter.
After her first visit to Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna regularly returns to the older woman’s apartment often, where she reads Robert’s letters and listens to Mademoiselle Reisz play. Mademoiselle Reisz serves a dual role for Edna. She keeps Edna’s passion for Robert alive by providing the letters, and she also serves as an example to Edna for how a woman artist can live in a world that does not value her.
“If I were young and in love with a man,” said Mademoiselle, turning on the stool and pressing her wiry hands between her knees as she looked down at Edna, who sat on the floor holding the letter, “it seems to me he would have to be some grand esprit; a man with lofty aims and ability to reach them; one who stood high enough to attract the notice of his fellow-men. It seems to me if I were young and in love I should never deem a man of ordinary caliber worthy of my devotion.”
In this short speech, Mademoiselle Reisz makes clear two things. First, she has impossibly high standards, which could explain why she never married. Second, she identifies with Edna and sees something of herself in the younger woman. Here she is basically advising Edna to turn her back on love and devote herself to her higher artistic calling.
”You are purposely misunderstanding me, ma reine. Are you in love with Robert?”
Mademoiselle Reisz’s question to Edna is significant because it draws an affirmative response. Edna’s utterance of “yes” is the younger woman’s first admission to anyone of her feelings for Robert. Despite Mademoiselle Reisz’s disagreeable and aggressive manner, she makes Edna comfortable enough to share her greatest secret. This truth attests to the connection between the women.
“Well, for instance, when I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’”
Edna relates Mademoiselle Reisz’s words to Arobin while still puzzling over them herself. Mademoiselle Reisz sees in Edna the capacity to transcend the traditional role of women in their society. She identifies the artistic sensibility and yearning in Edna but is unsure if Edna has a brave enough temperament. She has warned Edna that if she wants to be a true artist, she must be prepared to leave the expectations of society behind.