The novel opens on Grand Isle, a summer retreat for the wealthy French Creoles of New Orleans. Léonce Pontellier, a wealthy New Orleans businessman of forty, reads his newspaper outside the Isle’s main guesthouse. Two birds, the pets of the guesthouse’s proprietor, Madame Lebrun, are making a great deal of noise. The parrot repeats phrases in English and French while the mockingbird sings persistently. Hoping to escape the birds’ disruptive chatter, Léonce retreats into the cottage he has rented. Glancing back at the main building, Léonce notes that the noise emanating from it has increased: the Farival twins play the piano, Madame Lebrun gives orders to two servants, and a lady in black walks back and forth with her rosary beads in hand. Down by the water-oaks his four- and five-year-old sons play under the watchful eye of their quadroon (one-quarter black) nurse.
Léonce smokes a cigar and watches as his wife, Edna, strolls toward him from the beach, accompanied by the young Robert Lebrun, Mrs. Lebrun’s son. Léonce notices that his wife is sunburned and scolds her for swimming during the hottest hours of the day. He returns the rings he’s been holding for Edna and invites Robert to play some billiards at Klein’s hotel. Robert declines and stays to talk with Edna as Léonce walks away.
Robert and Edna talk without pause, discussing the sights and people around them. Robert, a clean-shaven, carefree young man, discusses his plans to seek his fortune in Mexico at the end of the summer. Edna is handsome and engaging. She talks about her childhood in Kentucky bluegrass country and her sister’s upcoming wedding.
Léonce is in great spirits when he returns from playing billiards late that evening. He wakes Edna to tell her the news and gossip from the club, and he is disappointed when she responds with groggy half-answers. He goes to check on his sons and informs Edna that Raoul seems to have a fever. She replies that the child was fine when he went to bed, but Léonce insists that she attend to him, criticizing Edna for her “habitual neglect of the children.”
After a cursory visit to the boys’ bedroom, Edna returns to bed, refusing to answer any of her husband’s inquiries. Léonce soon falls asleep but Edna remains wide awake. She sits on the porch and weeps quietly as she listens to the sea. Though she has found herself inexplicably unhappy many times before, she has always felt comforted by the kindness and devotion of her husband. This particular evening, however, Edna experiences an unfamiliar oppression. It fills her “whole being” and keeps her out on the porch until the bugs force her back inside.
The next morning, Léonce departs for a week-long business trip. Before he leaves, he gives Edna some spending money and says good-bye to the small crowd that has gathered to see him off. From New Orleans, he sends Edna a box of bonbons that she shares with her friends. All of the ladies declare Léonce the best husband in the world, and under pressure Edna admits “she kn[ows] of none better.”
Léonce cannot explain why he always feels dissatisfied with Edna’s treatment of their sons, but he perceives a difference between his wife and the other women on Grand Isle. Unlike the others, who are “mother-women,” Edna does not “idolize” her children or “worship” her husband at the cost of her own individuality. Edna’s friend Adèle Ratignolle, who embodies all the grace and charm of a romantic heroine, is the prime example of the mother-woman. Back on Grand Isle, Adèle, Edna, and Robert relax, eating the bonbons Léonce has sent and conversing about Adèle’s sewing, the chocolates, and, much to Edna’s shock, childbirth. As a result of her marriage to Léonce, who is a Creole (a person descended from the original French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans, an aristocrat), Edna has spent a great deal of time surrounded by Creole women. Yet, she is still not entirely comfortable with their customs. Their lack of self-restraint in conversation is at odds with mainstream American conventions. Nevertheless, they somehow possess a quality of lofty purity that seems to keep them free of reproach.
Since early adolescence, Robert has chosen one woman each summer to whom he devotes himself as an attendant. As he sits with Edna and Adèle by the shore, he tells Edna of his days as Adèle’s attendant. Adèle jests that, at the time, she had feared her husband’s jealousy, a comment that inspires laughter because it was accepted that a Creole husband never has reason to be jealous. Adèle says that she never took Robert’s proclamations of love as serious confessions of passion.
Robert’s decision to devote himself to Edna for the summer comes as no surprise to those on Grand Isle. Yet although Robert devotes himself to a different woman every summer, his playful attentions to Edna differ from his treatments of past women, and when he and Edna are alone he never speaks of love in the same “serio-comic tone” he used with Adèle. Edna sketches Adèle while Robert watches. He leans his head on Edna’s arm until she gently pushes him away. Adèle is disappointed that the finished drawing does not resemble her, but she is still pleased by the work. Edna herself is unsatisfied. She smudges the paint and crumples the drawing.
Edna’s children bound up the steps with their nurse some distance behind them. They help Edna bring her painting equipment into the house and she rewards them with bonbons before they scamper away again. Adèle experiences a brief fainting spell, which Edna suspects may be feigned. After recovering, Adèle gracefully retires to her cottage, meeting her own three children along the way and receiving them with “a thousand endearments.” Edna declines Robert’s suggestion that they go for a swim, unconvincingly complaining that she is too tired. She soon gives in to Robert’s insistent entreaties, however, and he places her straw hat on her head as they move toward the beach.
It is appropriate that The Awakening, which is essentially a novel about the social constraints of women in the Victorian era, opens with the shrieking complaint of a constrained parrot: “Go away! Go away! For God’s sake.” These words, the first in The Awakening, immediately hint at the tragic nature of the novel, as the bird echoes the phrases of rejection and rebuff that it has heard time and again. Although Madame Lebrun’s parrot speaks English, French, and “a little Spanish,” it also speaks a “language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes. . . .” Caged and misunderstood, the parrot’s predicament mirrors Edna’s.
Edna also speaks a language that nobody, not even her husband, friends, or lovers, understands. It seems that Edna must have a mockingbird-type figure, someone who understands her mysterious language as the mockingbird understands the parrot’s. Although we have not yet met her, it will soon become clear that, if the parrot stands for Edna, the mockingbird represents Mademoiselle Reisz, the unconventional and self-sufficient pianist who will inspire Edna’s independence later in the novel. Indeed, the parallels extend quite far. Like the parrot, Edna is valued by society for her physical appearance. And like the mockingbird, Mademoiselle Reisz is valued by society for her musical talent. Although the parrot and the mockingbird are different, the two birds can communicate since they share, like Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz, the common experience of confinement. The metaphor of the pet bird applies not only to Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz but also to most women in the nineteenth century. Never asked to voice their own opinions, these women were instead expected to repeat the ideas that society voiced to them through the bars of their metaphorical cages.
The tension and discord between Edna and Léonce at the beginning of the novel foreshadows the drama that will result from Edna’s later departure from social conventions. Léonce does not regard his wife as a partner in marriage but as a possession. When he notices that she is sunburned from swimming, he looks at her “as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.” Léonce’s perception of his wife as his property was common in Louisiana society and formalized by its laws. Women were expected to be what the novel terms “mother-women,” who, “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings,” desired nothing more than “to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” Here, the wing imagery links women to angels, but it also evokes the earlier symbolism of birds. Again, however, the narrator associates “winged” women with confinement rather than freedom. The “mother-women” have wings but are expected to use them only to protect and serve their families, not to fly. Léonce’s criticism that Edna is a negligent mother reveals that in addition to feeling trapped by society, Edna is shunned by society for her deviation from its norms. Her tearful escape onto the porch prefigures later episodes in which she will similarly defy others by isolating herself from them.
The lady in black, who paces with her rosary beads, demonstrates a different sort of isolation—the patient, resigned solitude of a widow. This solitude is not the sign of independence or strength, but rather manifests a self-abnegating withdrawal from life and passion, undertaken out of utter respect for a husband’s death. Throughout the novel, this black-clad woman never speaks, as if having vowed silence. Her silence contributes to her lack of individuality and her idealization within the text as the socially acceptable widow. Adèle Ratignolle exemplifies many of the same ideals as the lady in black, but she does so in the context of marriage rather than widowhood. She devotes herself solely to her husband and children, seeking nothing for herself.
And yet, notwithstanding her perfection in the roles of mother and wife, Adèle speaks with a candor that amazes Edna. Edna can hardly believe the permissiveness of Creole society in allowing everyone, including women, to discuss openly the intimacies of life such as pregnancy, undergarments, and love affairs. Men like Robert can ostentatiously play at flirting with married women, and the women can freely reciprocate.
Despite this outward appearance of liberty, however, Creole society imposes a strict code of chastity. Indeed, it is only because the rules for behavior are so rigid that a certain freedom of expression is tolerated. A Creole husband is “never jealous” because the fidelity instilled in Creole women from birth ensures that a man’s possession of his wife will never be challenged.
Robert’s affectionate interactions with the women of Grand Isle mimic those of the medieval practice of courtly love. Courtly love was a cultural ideal based on medieval love poetry, in which a relationship developed between a woman and a man who devoted all his actions toward her as an ideal figure. The relationship between the two lovers, however, was entirely chaste. During the middle ages, courtly love provided a woman with an opportunity—other than marriage—to express affection without losing her social respectability. Now, in nineteenth-century Creole society, it seems to serve the same purpose. Yet this code of behavior strikes Edna as entirely foreign. Not a Creole herself, Edna has never been exposed to this odd balance of free speech and restrained action. She notices appreciatively that Robert never praises her with the same ambiguity he does Adèle, wavering between jest and earnestness—for she would have found such ambiguity to be confusing, she thinks, and generally “unacceptable and annoying.”