Summary: Chapter 20
During one of her spells of depression, Edna decides to pay Mademoiselle Reisz a visit in order to listen to her play the piano. Finding that the woman has moved, Edna visits Madame Lebrun in search of Mademoiselle Reisz’s new address. Robert’s brother Victor answers the door and sends the servant to fetch his mother. He launches into a story about his exploits of the previous evening, which Edna cannot help finding entertaining. Madame Lebrun appears, complaining of how few visitors she receives, and Victor tells Edna the contents of Robert’s two letters from Mexico. Edna is depressed to hear that Robert enclosed no message for her. She asks about Mademoiselle Reisz, and Madame Lebrun gives her the pianist’s new address. Victor then escorts Edna outside. After Edna leaves, the Lebruns comment to each other on Edna’s ravishing appearance, and Victor notes, “Some way she doesn’t seem like the same woman.”
Summary: Chapter 21
Mademoiselle Reisz laughs with happiness and surprise when Edna arrives at her door. Edna’s frank admission that she is unsure of whether she likes Mademoiselle pleases her host. Mademoiselle mentions nonchalantly that Robert has sent her a letter from Mexico, in which he has written almost entirely about Edna. Edna’s plea to read the letter is denied, although Mademoiselle mentions that Robert requested she play for Edna “that Impromptu of Chopin’s.” Edna continues to beg Mademoiselle to play the piano and to allow her to read Robert’s letter.
Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna what she has been doing with her time and is surprised to hear of Edna’s current desire to become an artist. She warns her that an artist must be brave, possessing “a courageous soul . . . that dares and defies.” Edna assures her that she has persistence if nothing else, and Mademoiselle Reisz laughs, gives Edna the letter, and begins to play the Chopin Impromptu that Edna requested. The music deeply affects Edna, and she weeps as the pianist glides between the Impromptu and another piece, “Isolde’s song.” When Edna asks if she may visit again, Mademoiselle Reisz replies that she is welcome at all times.
Summary: Chapter 22
Léonce expresses his concern about Edna to Doctor Mandelet, his friend and the family’s physician. Léonce confides that he and his wife are no longer sleeping together, noting, “She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women.” The doctor asks if Edna has been associating with a circle of “pseudo-intellectual women,” alluding to the contemporary women’s clubs that served to educate their members and to organize them politically. Léonce replies that Edna no longer seems to see anyone at all. She mopes around the house, wanders the streets alone, and has abandoned even her Tuesday receptions.
Having ruled out Edna’s female companions as the source of her estrangement, Dr. Mandelet inquires about Edna’s heredity. Léonce assures the doctor that Edna descends from a respectable Presbyterian family, but he admits that her younger sister Janet, who is about to be married, “is something of a vixen.” Doctor Mandelet suggests that Léonce send Edna to the wedding so that she can be with her family, but Léonce replies that Edna has already declared her unwillingness to attend. She told her husband, “a wedding is one of the most lamentable spectacles on earth.” After a pause, the doctor assures Léonce that this “passing whim” will run its course if he lets her alone for awhile, even allowing her to stay home alone when he leaves on business if that is what she wishes. Doctor Mandelet promises to attend dinner at the Pontellier home in order to study Edna inconspicuously. Despite the doctor’s suspicion that Edna may have another man in her life, the doctor takes his leave without making any inquiries along that line.
Summary: Chapter 23
Edna’s father, a former colonel in the Confederate army, stays for a few days in New Orleans to select a wedding gift for Janet and to purchase a suit for the wedding. Edna is not very close with the Colonel, who retains a certain military air from his war days. Nevertheless, the two are companionable, and Edna decides to sketch her father in her studio. The Colonel takes Edna’s painting very seriously, posing patiently for her sketches. She takes him to Adèle’s soirée musicale (an evening of musical entertainment), where Adèle enchants him by being flirtatious and flattering. As usual, Léonce refuses to attend Adèle’s gathering, preferring the diversion of the club. Adèle disapproves of Léonce’s club and remarks to Edna that the couple should spend more time together at home in the evenings, an idea Edna rebuffs by asserting that they “wouldn’t have anything to say to each other.”
Edna takes delight in serving her father hand and foot, appreciating their companionship but realizing that her interest in him will likely fade. Doctor Mandelet comes to dinner at the Pontellier home but notices nothing in Edna’s behavior to arouse concern. She seems to him positively radiant as she relates her day at the races with her father and describes the charming people they met there. Everyone takes turns telling stories for entertainment: the Colonel speaks of war times, Léonce recalls memories from his youth, and the doctor tells a tale of a female patient who eventually came to her senses after pursuing multiple stray affections. Edna responds to this with a fictional story of a woman who disappears forever into the islands with her lover. Edna pretends to have heard the tale from Madame Antoine, and the doctor is the only person who perceives the implications of Edna’s tale. On his way home, he muses, “I hope to heaven it isn’t Alcée Arobin.”
Summary: Chapter 24
Edna and the Colonel engage in a heated argument over Edna’s refusal to attend Janet’s wedding in New York, but Léonce doesn’t intervene, resolving instead to attend the wedding himself in order to deflect the insult of Edna’s absence. The Colonel criticizes Léonce’s lack of control over Edna, maintaining that a man must use “authority” and “coercion” in all matters concerning his wife. As Léonce’s departure for New York approaches, Edna becomes suddenly attentive to and affectionate with Léonce, remembering his many kindnesses and even shedding a few tears when the day of his departure arrives. The children, too, are leaving for a while, to spend some time with Léonce’s mother, Madame Pontellier, who requested their company at her home in the country. Once alone, Edna is overtaken with a “radiant peace.” She surveys her house and gardens as if for the first time, dines alone in her nightgown, and reads in the library every night before bed.
Analysis: Chapters 20–24
The contrast between Edna and Adèle grows increasingly apparent in these chapters, as Edna drifts ever farther from the ideal “mother-woman” embodied by Adèle. Edna is increasingly preoccupied with the idea of abandoning her former lifestyle for a career in painting, whereas Adèle sees no difference between Edna’s art and her own music, which she uses, not as an outlet for her emotions, but as a way to serve and nurture her domestic and social relations. Adèle’s soirée musicale exemplifies her use of music as a social tool.
In Chapter 18, Edna was bothered by Adèle’s subservience to her husband’s opinion. When he spoke at dinner, Adèle gave him her complete attention, even to the point of laying down her fork to hear him better. Edna is wholly uninterested in experiencing for herself the union that Adèle and her husband share, and she thinks that they cannot fully appreciate life beyond the narrow confines of convention. When she saw Adèle’s behavior in Chapter 18, she thought to herself that “the taste of life’s delirium” is preferable to the “blind contentment” of the Ratignolles. In Chapter 23, Edna again finds her friend’s behavior distasteful. When Edna takes her father to one of Adèle’s musical soirées, Adèle plays the perfect hostess, flirting with glances, gestures, and compliments. Edna looks down upon such coquetry, and although she enjoys being noticed by the men, she waits for them to approach her during lulls in the music. Edna’s attitude reveals her desire to engage with men on a more equal and less self-degrading manner.
While Edna finds herself feeling distanced from her former confidante Adèle, she becomes increasingly close to Mademoiselle Reisz, whom she is beginning to resemble. An inspiration to Edna’s awakening, Mademoiselle Reisz is a self-sufficient and independent woman. She is passionate about her music and ignores the opinions of those around her. Through her relationship with the pianist, Edna becomes more aware of herself as a woman capable of passionate art and passionate love. While the two capacities are interconnected, Mademoiselle Reisz serves to further each specifically. Not only is the pianist in touch with her own artistic emotions, she is, on a more pragmatic level, in touch with the traveling Robert, and she is the only one to whom he speaks about his love for Edna.
After playing Edna’s requested piece, the Chopin Impromptu, Mademoiselle Reisz takes up a song from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. The opera tells the tragic love story of two characters who resemble Edna and Robert: a married woman and a single man who can be together only in death. In the piece the mademoiselle plays, Isolde pledges her decision to follow Tristan in death. Although the text does not quote the words Isolde sings here, an acquaintance with the lyrics allows the reader to access a bit of discreet but poignant foreshadowing. Isolde sings: “As they swell and roar around me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen to them? Shall I sip them, plunge beneath them, to expire in sweet perfume? In the surging swell, in the ringing sound, in the vast wave of the world’s breath—to drown, to sink, unconscious—supreme bliss.” Isolde’s words prefigure Edna’s final, suicidal, entry into the ocean waves.
Léonce, blinded by conventional views of women’s behavior, sees Edna’s newfound independence as a sign of mental illness. Doctor Mandelet shows more insight by advising Léonce to allow Edna to do as she wishes. Doctor Mandelet intends his tale at dinner to be both a diagnostic tool and a subtle admonition to Edna, and Edna shows that she understands the Doctor’s meaning by countering with her own elaborately detailed and captivating tale of a woman who escapes with her lover and never returns. Only the doctor, Edna, and the reader are able to discern the meaningful subtext that is present in these dinner table stories.