Summary: Chapter 15
One evening at dinner, several people inform Edna that Robert is leaving for Mexico that evening. Edna is shocked by this news, as she spent all morning with Robert and he mentioned nothing of his plans. The dinner conversation splits off into varied stories and questions about Mexico and its inhabitants, but Edna feels such anguish that the only time she opens her mouth is to ask Robert what time he will leave. After finishing her coffee, Edna promptly retires to her cottage, where she occupies herself with housework and the needs of her sons. Mrs. Lebrun sends a message requesting that Edna sit with her until Robert leaves, but Edna replies that she doesn’t feel well and wants to stay in. Adèle comes down to check on Edna and agrees that Robert’s abrupt departure seems unfair and unkind. Unable to persuade Edna to accompany her back to the main house, Adèle departs unaccompanied to rejoin the others’ conversation. Robert himself then visits Edna. He bids her good-bye and is unable to say when he will return. She expresses her disappointment and offense at his spontaneous and unannounced departure, but he stops short of giving her a full explanation, fearing that he will reveal his true feelings for her. Edna asks Robert to write her and is bothered by Robert’s uncharacteristic, distant reply: “I will, thank you. Good-by.” Edna broods in the darkness and tries to prevent herself from crying, recognizing in her relations with Robert the same symptoms of infatuation she knew as a youth.
Summary: Chapter 16
Edna is constantly possessed by thoughts of Robert. She feels as though her entire existence has been dulled by his departure. She often visits Madame Lebrun to chat and study the pictures of Robert in the family albums. Edna reads the letter Robert sent to his mother before departing for Mexico from New Orleans and feels a momentary pang of jealousy that he did not write to her instead.
Everyone finds it natural that Edna misses Robert, even her husband. When Edna learns that Léonce saw Robert in New Orleans before his departure for Mexico, she questions him extensively about their meeting. Edna sees no harm in this interrogation, for her feelings for Robert are nothing like her feelings for her husband. She is used to keeping her emotions and thoughts to herself. Edna had once tried to express this ownership of emotions to Adèle, telling her: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children, but I wouldn’t give myself.” Adèle cannot understand what more one could do for her children than give up her life.
Shortly before the summer’s end, Mademoiselle Reisz approaches Edna on the beach, curious about the effect of Robert’s absence on Edna. A conversation ensues in which Mademoiselle tells Edna that Madame Lebrun is partial to her other son Victor, despite Victor’s impudence. The two brothers apparently have a history of squabbles. Mademoiselle Reisz does not realize that she has upset Edna, and she gives Edna her address in New Orleans, urging her to visit.
Summary: Chapter 17
Léonce takes great pride in his possessions and enjoys walking around his lavishly decorated New Orleans home and examining his household goods. Every Tuesday for the past six years Edna has observed her reception day—a day set aside each week for receiving visitors—dressing handsomely and not leaving the house. A few weeks after returning to New Orleans, she and Léonce sit down to dinner, Edna wearing an ordinary housedress rather than her usual Tuesday gown. Léonce notices her attire and asks about Edna’s day. She replies that she was not at home to receive visitors, nor did she leave the servants with an excuse with which they might placate her guests. Léonce is angry with her, fearing that her neglect of her social duties will jeopardize his business relations with the husbands of her visitors. Complaining that the cook has produced a substandard meal, Léonce leaves mid-meal to take dinner at the club, a practice to which Edna has become accustomed over the past several weeks. After finishing her meal, Edna goes to her room, pacing while she tears her thin handkerchief into pieces. She throws her wedding ring to the floor and tries unsuccessfully to crush it. Feeling the need to destroy something, she shatters a glass vase on the hearth.
Summary: Chapter 18
The next morning Edna declines Léonce’s request that she meet him in town and instead tries to work on some sketches. Not in the mood for sketching, however, she decides to visit Adèle, whom she finds at home folding newly laundered clothing. Edna informs her friend that she wants to take drawing lessons and presents her portfolio, seeking praise and encouragement in the matter. Edna gives some sketches to Adèle and stays for dinner. Upon leaving, Edna realizes with a strong sense of depression that the perfect domestic harmony enjoyed by the Ratignolles is entirely undesirable to her. She pities Adèle’s “colorless existence” and “blind contentment.”
Summary: Chapter 19
Edna has entirely abandoned the practice of staying home to receive callers on Tuesdays. Léonce, severely displeased by Edna’s refusal to submit to his demands, scolds his wife for spending her days painting instead of caring for the “comfort of her family.” He bids her think of Adèle, who never allows her love of music to distract her from her household responsibilities. Léonce sometimes speculates that Edna suffers from some mental disturbance, and he leaves Edna alone to paint and sing Robert’s song to herself as she dreams of the sea and Grand Isle. Her daily moods fluctuate wildly between inexplicable joy and equally intense sorrow.
Analysis: Chapters 15–19
The odd farewell between Edna and Robert demonstrates their contrasting attitudes toward upholding the rules assigned by society and tradition. Robert never addresses Edna directly by her first name, saying simply, “Good-by, my dear Mrs. Pontellier.” He seems consumed by the idea that Léonce already has the rights of possession over Edna, and Robert’s use of the words “my dear” is his only expression of his feelings for Edna. Edna, on the other hand, calls Robert directly by his first name, clinging to his hand as she asks, “Write to me when you get there, won’t you, Robert?” Robert, who has recognized the chemistry between himself and Edna since the first days of their acquaintance, is able to overlook his feelings for Edna when etiquette requires. She, on the other hand, has not yet reached either stage. It is only as Robert walks away that she recognizes the symptoms of youthful infatuation in her feelings for him.
Edna’s sexual awakening in her relations with Robert is intimately connected to her other dawning awarenesses. As she has begun to recognize and listen to her own emotions, she has come to feel an entitlement to them. Thus, she does not feel remorse at inciting Léonce to talk about Robert, nor does she keep from Adèle her unwillingness to give up herself for her children. While her farewell with Robert is revelatory of the still-undeveloped nature of Edna’s sexual awareness, her awakening has already progressed quite far on a more general level. Edna, unlike Adèle, can see that there is something more valuable than one’s life, that there is a reality more profound and important than physical existence.
After returning to New Orleans, Edna begins to allow this inner life to emerge and expand to the point that it affects those around her. She occupies her time with painting rather than domestic chores and is consumed by her own moods. Léonce’s reactions do not prove him to be any less self-centered, however. When he notices her neglect of household chores, he is worried about the negative effect Edna’s actions may have on his social standing rather than her unhappiness. His absorption with respectability and appearance, which prevents Léonce from gaining any insight into his wife’s true nature, is also evident in the pleasure he derives from the lavish goods that furnish his home. His lack of insight emerges when he wonders whether Edna is going mad because she is behaving quite unlike herself. In fact, the text tells us, Edna is “becoming herself” and “daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear to the world.”
Keeping this remark in mind, literal garments gather increasing importance in these chapters as Edna expresses her rebellion in part through her clothing. Upset by the news of Robert’s departure, Edna strips down to her dressing gown. The layers she removes could be seen to symbolize Victorian discretion, stripped away by her growing sexual awareness. And, back in New Orleans, Edna’s disregard for the traditional Tuesday reception is revealed to Léonce by the ordinary housedress she wears in place of her reception gown. The restriction and theatricality of social customs are embodied in the restrictive costuming that accompanies those customs.