He had lived in her shadow during the past month. No one thought anything of it. Many had predicted that Robert would devote himself to Mrs. Pontellier when he arrived. Since the age of fifteen, which was eleven years before, Robert each summer at Grand Isle had constituted himself the devoted attendant of some fair dame or damsel. Sometimes it was a young girl, again a widow; but as often as not it was some interesting married woman.
In Chapter V, the reader learns about a core aspect of Robert’s identity: He is a platonic lover of women. While this summer he has chosen Mrs. Pontellier to be the object of his affection, the recitation of his past romances indicate that no one expects anything more serious to come of his devotion. Robert will continue to act, as he has in the past, as a perfect gentleman.
“She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking your seriously.”
Adèle warns Robert to be more careful in the affections he shows to Edna. Not being familiar with Creole openness and flirtatiousness, Edna may make the mistake of thinking that Robert’s attentions to her arise out of a deeper emotion. Adèle’s caution also alerts Robert to the danger of allowing Edna to feel more strongly for him: Even if they fall in love, they will be unable to further the relationship.
He stirred the smoldering ashes till the broiled fowl began to sizzle afresh. He served her with no mean repast, dripping the coffee anew and sharing it with her. Madame Antoine had cooked little else than the mullets, but while Edna slept Robert had foraged the island. He was childishly gratified to discover her appetite, and to see the relish with which she ate the food which he had procured for her.
During the day that Edna and Robert spend on Chênière Caminada, they both try on new roles. Edna sleeps in a strange bed, which is important because it is not her own marital bed, while Robert assumes the mantle of husband and takes pleasure in hunting food and then providing it to Edna. In this scene however, Edna’s role is far more sensual than Robert’s, indicating that their affection for one another will play out in different ways.
“Robert is very well in a way, to give up all the money he can earn to the family, and keep the barest pittance for himself, Favorite son, indeed! I miss the poor fellow myself, my dear. I liked to see him and to hear him about the place—the only Lebrun who is worth a pinch of salt.”
Mademoiselle Reisz corrects Edna’s impression that Robert is his mother’s favorite son. She characterizes Robert as a hardworking, honorable young man, which accords with the way he has behaved around Edna. Mademoiselle Reisz’s assessment should indicate to Edna that Robert will not have the ability to do the wrong thing and act on their love for one another.
“Does he write to you? Never a line. Does he send you a message? Never a word. It is because he loves you, poor fool, and is trying to forget you, since you are not free to listen to him or belong to him.”
In New Orleans, Mademoiselle Reisz continues to serve as a truth teller to Edna. Robert chooses not to communicate with Edna, putting distance between them to demonstrate that no possibility exists for them to be together. Edna holds on to her dreams of Robert, but Robert knows his own sense of honor would never allow him to be with her.
She found in his eyes, when he looked at her for one silent moment, the same tender caress, with an added warmth and entreaty which had not been there before—the same glance which had penetrated to the sleeping paces of her soul and awakened them.
In Chapter XXXIII, Edna and Robert have been reunited by chance at Mademoiselle Reisz’s apartment. While Robert’s words and body language show his discomfort, his unguarded facial expressions reveal his true feelings toward Edna. Robert’s caressing Edna with his eyes emerges as a stark contrast to Arobin, who uses continual physical caresses to woo a hesitant woman into becoming his lover.
“Why? Because you were not free; you were Léonce Pontellier’s wife. I couldn’t help loving you if you were ten times his wife; but so long as I went away from you and kept away I could help telling you so.”
In response to Edna’s kiss, Robert finally confesses his love to Edna. These feelings flared strong enough during their summer together that he left for Mexico. At that time, however, neither party would act upon their mutual attraction. Now that Edna has awakened to her sexuality, she has initiated contact with Robert and broken down his defenses.
“I love you. Good-by—because I love you.”
Robert got a much-needed break when Edna was called away just as the two were admitting their mutual love. Robert takes the opportunity to gather his senses and flee. He has two reasons for leaving. First, Léonce will never free Edna, which is the only way Robert could be with her. Second, Robert realizes that Edna wants to be a free woman, not owned by any man, which is too radical an idea.