As the crowd makes its way from the party down to the beach, Edna wonders why Robert has distanced himself from her. He no longer accompanies her constantly as he did before, although he doubles his devotion upon his return from an entire day spent away from her. It is as though he feels obligated to spend a certain number of hours with Edna.
Most of the beach-goers enter the water without a second thought, but Edna is hesitant. Despite the attempts of the other guests to teach her, she is still unable to swim. Suddenly, she feels empowered and steps into the water, earning surprised applause from her onlookers. She swims out alone, for the first time truly feeling a sense of control over her body and soul. She becomes reckless and wants to swim out “where no woman had swum before,” and she scolds herself for discovering the simplicity of this act after so much time spent “splashing about like a baby!” When she looks back to the shore, however, she realizes how far she has gone and worries that she will perish from not having the strength to make it back on her own. When she arrives back on shore, she immediately dresses in the bathhouse and starts to walk home alone, despite the attempts of her husband and the other guests to retain her.
Robert runs after Edna as she makes her way home, and she asks if he thought she was afraid to walk home alone. He assures her that he knew she wasn’t afraid, but he is unable to explain why he ran after her. Overwhelmed, Edna tries but fails to articulate the flood of new emotions and experiences the night has inspired in her. When Robert tells her a story of a spirit seeking a mortal worthy of visiting the semi-celestials, and of how that spirit selected Edna as his companion this night, she dismisses the tale as mere banter, not realizing that Robert is trying to express that he understands how she feels. Edna collapses into her porch hammock and Robert decides to stay with her until her husband returns. Neither speaks. The narrator comments, “No multitude of words could have been more significant than these moments of silence, or more pregnant with the first-felt throbbings of desire.” When they hear the swimmers returning, Robert says good-bye and leaves.
[Edna] perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant . . . she could not realize why or how she should have [ever] yielded [to her husband], feeling as she then did.
Léonce returns and urges Edna to go to bed, but she tells him not to wait for her—she will stay outside in the hammock. She can tell that her stubbornness irritates him, and she realizes that up to this point she has always submitted to her husband’s requests unthinkingly, out of habit. Edna feels so altered by her newfound defiance and resistance that she fails to understand how she could have ever yielded to his commands before. Léonce sits on the porch smoking cigars and drinking wine until just before dawn. Several times he offers wine to Edna, but each time she refuses. Sleep finally defeats Edna’s exuberant mood and forces her inside. She asks Léonce if he is coming as well, and he replies that he will follow her once he finishes his cigar.
Edna wakes up after a few hours of restless sleep. Almost everyone on Grand Isle is still in bed, but several people, including the two lovers and the lady in black, are on their way to the wharf to take the boat to the isle of Chênière Caminada for Sunday mass. For the first time all summer, Edna actively requests Robert’s company by asking one of Mrs. Lebrun’s servants to wake him. However, neither Edna nor Robert thinks her request an extraordinary turn of events. They join the other guests on the boat, and Robert speaks in Spanish to Mariequita, a young, flirtatious Spanish girl who is brimming with questions. Robert soon returns his attention to Edna and suggests they explore other islands together in the upcoming days. They laugh about the treasure they will find and then squander together. Edna feels as though the chains that had held her to Grand Isle have finally snapped over the course of the previous night, leaving her unanchored and free to drift wherever she chooses.
“How many years have I slept?” she inquired. “. . . A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics.”
In the middle of the church service, Edna feels drowsy and troubled. She stumbles outside, with Robert following closely behind. He takes her to rest at the cottage of Madame Antoine, a native of the Chênière. Once she is alone in the small bedroom, Edna removes most of her clothing and washes up at a basin. Stretching out in bed she observes with a new affection the firmness and fineness of her arms, and she drifts off to sleep. When she awakens, glowing and full of energy, she finds Robert outside in the garden, alone. She feels as if she has slept for years and jokes that they are the only remaining members of their race. Edna eats the dinner that Robert has prepared, and when Madame Antoine returns, they rest together under a tree, listening to the woman’s stories until the sun has set and they must return home.
When Edna returns, Adèle reports that Edna’s younger son, Etienne, has refused to go to bed. Edna takes him on her lap and soothes him to sleep. Her friend also tells her that Léonce was worried when Edna did not return from the Chênière after mass, but once he was assured that Edna was merely resting at Madame Antoine’s and that Madame Antoine’s son would see her home, he left for the club on business. Adèle then departs for her own cottage, hating to leave her husband alone. After Robert and Edna put Etienne to bed, Robert bids her good night and Edna remarks that they have been together all day. Robert leaves, and as she awaits Léonce’s return, Edna recognizes, but cannot explain, the transformation she has undergone during her stay at Grand Isle. Because she is not tired herself, Edna assumes that Robert isn’t actually tired either, and she wonders why he did not stay with her. She regrets his departure and sings to herself the tune he had sung as they crossed the bay to the Chênière—“Ah! Si tu savais . . .” (“Ah! If only you knew”).
Edna’s first swim constitutes one of the most important steps in her process of transformation. It symbolizes her rebirth, sexual awakening, and self-discovery. Edna has been unable to venture into the water because she is afraid of abandoning herself to the sea’s vast and isolating expanse. After the swim, Edna has gained a new confidence in her own solitude.
When Edna descends into the water on the night of the party, she appears like a “little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who . . . walks for the first time alone.” As she gains confidence she announces to herself, “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” Using a metaphor of rebirth and childhood growth to describe Edna’s metamorphosis, Chopin’s language in this passage presents Edna as a child who has just outgrown infancy and is finally a full-fledged toddler. Edna’s journey is not complete, however. Although she defies societal expectations by venturing out alone, she also retains a certain childlike fear of self-reliance, as evidenced in the terror she feels when she realizes that she must depend only on herself to make it back to shore.
While Edna’s achievement demonstrates her newfound wisdom and courage, the language in which the event is narrated also refers to society-wide assumptions about the helpless status of women. In many ways, Victorian law treated women like dependent minors, granting them their rights through their husbands as children would receive their rights through their fathers. At this point in her awakening, Edna’s rebellious will is not paired with the fortitude required to withstand the consequences of defying social conventions, and the catastrophe of her story lies in the fact that she never quite attains this power. Thus, in addition to foreshadowing her eventual death in the ocean, the episode where she first swims also foreshadows the dangerous discrepancy between Edna’s desire (her desire to swim) and her stamina (her inability to sustain the courage and strength that propel her to swim out on her own).
Edna’s sense of independence and control is tested when Léonce returns to the cottage and demands that she come inside with him. Inspired by her earlier feats, Edna stands up to Léonce for the first time in six years of marriage. She even reproaches him for speaking to her with such assumed authority. Eventually, however, the pressing reality of her situation sinks in, and physical exhaustion deflates her raised spirit. As she goes inside to bed, we see the conventional structure of relations between Léonce and his wife restored. Léonce outlasts Edna’s defiance and his comment that he will go to bed after he finishes his cigar proves that he can dictate his own bedtime whereas Edna, childlike, cannot.
When Edna and Robert sit on the porch in silence after she has defiantly surrendered herself to the sea, it is apparent that the event has instilled in Edna a new sexual awareness. She and Robert say nothing to one another, but, in the stillness, Edna feels “the first-felt throbbings of desire.” Yet, despite their growing passion for one another, Edna and Robert are unable to relax and speak openly until they have escaped the grasp of society and convention, as the day that Edna and Robert spend together on the island of Chênière Caminada proves. The island, and Madame Antoine’s cottage in particular, symbolizes freedom that comes from self-isolation. Only when Robert and Edna are alone, severed from reality and from their respective roles, can they express themselves and indulge in their fantasy of being together.
When Edna wakes from her rest, the island seems changed. She giddily entertains the idea that all the people on Grand Isle have disappeared from earth—an idea that Robert is eager to accept. But once they return to Grand Isle, Robert leaves Edna immediately, aware that their fantasy is just that. He knows that he can no longer express his feelings with the openness their isolation on the Chênière afforded him. Edna, however, shows that she has not realized how forceful societal conventions are. She cannot understand why Robert refuses to stay with her upon their return to Grand Isle.
The repeated phrase of the song first sung by Robert on the boat and later by Edna—“Ah! Si tu savais”—emphasizes the dramatic irony of the plot: neither character is aware of what will come to pass. First, they have both repressed their desire for one another. The song will also come to refer to Edna’s naïveté regarding the impossibility of her union with Robert. Robert’s adherence to societal conventions here, despite and in contrast to Edna’s own eagerness, foreshadows his similar inability to commit to her at the end of the novel.