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.