Edna Pontellier’s Awakening and her Final Decision in Kate Chopin’s Novel

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Edna’s First Awakening

Edna’s childhood is described in chapter seven where Edna starts to open up to Madame Ratignolle on the beach. Edna does not discuss only her childhood but also her marriage to Léonce Pontellier. The evidence of how much Edna has learned from Creole women about intimacy is her a very close relationship with Adele Ratignolle. Edna arranged to be with Adele alone because she wants to reveal something to her.

Edna’s need to share important moments of her life appears due to her contact with Creole women, especially Adele. Their open and intimate debates together with relaxing atmosphere in Great Isle create background for Edna’s decision to make significant changes in her life. Edna, who comes from a Catholic family, was raised very strictly and is not accustomed to talking about herself. With Mrs. Ratignolle, it seems to be her first intimate talk.

Edna had had an occasional girl friend, but whether accidentally or not, they seemed to have been all of one type - the self – contained. She never realized that the reserve of her character had much, perhaps everything, to do with this. (17)
Among all the Creole women, Edna chooses Mrs. Ratignolle to go to the beach and have a fateful chat with her. I believe that Edna’s choice of Adele Ratignolle as a companion is both conscious and unconscious. Edna is attracted to her and feels comfortable and happy in her company. She does not admire only her beauty but also her motherhood. However, she herself is not a motherly type. So shared love and devotion for children is not what makes them to be soul mates.

...one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture. Her name was Adele Ratignolle. There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams. There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them. (8)

Having read this extract, one might think that these lines full of praise were written either by Mrs. Ratignolle’s loving husband in first years of their marriage or by one of her lovers. To describe Mrs. Ratignolle’s beauty, gorgeousness and attractiveness, Edna uses poetic language full of metaphors, which is typical of either men in love or artists. Assuming that Edna is not a lesbian in love with Adele, we can consider this Edna’s first declaration of her artistic perception of beauty. In short, Adele awakened Edna’s romantic soul and discovered her artistic skills (later Edna tries to paint Adele).

Nevertheless, as has been mentioned earlier, Edna admires not only Adele’s appearance but her motherhood, too. She observes Adele’s behaviour to the children and finds her an admiringly loving mother, bbbecause she is able to devote herself fully to the family and children. Moreover, Adele enjoys her role and feels fulfilled.

As we learn later in the book, Edna’s mother died when Edna was only a child. She has always missed and still misses her very much, which explains her deep affection to motherly Adele whom Edna chooses to fulfil the empty space her dead mother left.

Therefore sitting on the beach with Adele brings Edna back to her childhood and she feels the desire to share her history with somebody close, as close as only a mother could be. One can sometimes recall a very old experience with surprisingly clear details as the following extract shows. Some of our memories are enduring; they are still with us and influence our life more than anything else does.

“The hot wind beating in my face made me think-without any connection that I can trace-of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as an ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water. Oh, I see the connection now!”

“Where were you going that day in Kentucky, walking through the grass?”

“I do not remember now where I was going. I was just walking diagonally across a big field. My sunbonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk forever, without coming to the end of it. I do not remember whether I was frightened or pleased. I must have been entertained.

“Likely as not it was Sunday,” she laughed; “and I was running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service, read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of.”

“And have you been running away from prayers ever since, ma chére?”

“No! Oh, no!” Edna hastened to say.

“I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse without question?”(16)
I assume this dialogue reveals a great detail about Edna’s character and her predestination to awake. Every sentence seems to enlighten something. Even the sunbonnet, which “obstructed the view” is used symbolically and means the restrictions and customs of that time perceived by a small girl.

It is obvious that little Edna suffered without her mother. She must have felt lonely and lost in her life because there was nobody to advice her and guide her. When she remembers the field, she mentions that she walked diagonally which makes us assume that there was no path to follow, to lead somewhere. It can be understood as a parallel to her “unguided” life. Neither her siblings (she was the second of three sisters) nor her father (she chills yet to think of him) was the soul mate that could show the way.

From the picture of lonely Edna in a big field, we can also guess that either she did not have many friends or her friends were not courageous enough to dare to join her in running away from prayers. Already as a small child, Edna was rebellious and stood out “following a misleading impulse without question”(16).

Further reading of the extract suggests that discussion between Edna and Adele is not equal. More than being the chatting of two friends it makes an impression of a daughter in conversation with a mother. When Mrs. Ratignolle asks Edna: “And have you been running away from prayers ever since, ma chére?” Edna’s reaction is very childish: “No! Oh, no!” (16). She excuses her “bad behaviour” and tries to defend her act by describing herself as a “little unthinking child” (16).

Clearly, deep inside she still feels her childish uncertainty. As she lacked the example of a mother’s role and an adult women’s behaviour in her childhood and teenage age, she could not fully mature and still remains partly a child.

The close connection between her childhood and adulthood is apparent when “leaning forward a little so as to bring her face quite close to that of her companion”(16) she lets her know that “sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided” (16). As we can deduce from Edna’s behaviour, she misses intimate relationships. She wants to be close to somebody, as a child wants to be close to a loving and devoted mother. Evidently, she is still looking for “hugs and strokes” her mother did not have the chance to provide sufficiently.

Adele is a sensitive woman and experienced mother, so she feels that Edna desires not only spiritual understanding but also some kind of physical contact as an evidence of closeness. She takes Edna’s palm in hers and makes Edna indulge in the mother’s touch for a while.

Madame Ratignolle laid her hand over that of Mrs. Pontellier, which was near her. Seeing that the hand was not withdrawn, she clasped it firmly and warmly. She even strokes it a little, fondly, with the other hand, murmuring in an undertone, “Pauvre cherie.” (17)

The time Adele and Edna spend together is very intimate for both the women. This power of intimacy, Adele’s empathy and her mothering nature awaken Edna’s sensuality. Adele, like every true mother, instinctively recognizes that Edna needs her understanding and protection. She puts herself in the role of Edna’s mother, which is proved when she asks Robert to do her a favour and “let Mrs Pontellier alone because she is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.”(19) Here Mrs. Ratignolle attempts to change Edna’s destiny and save her from what she foresees to happen.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, in my opinion, Edna’s awakenings were caused by two main reasons - first, Edna’s motherless childhood and maturing (this has been already discussed) and second, the choice of her husband. Nevertheless, as I try to prove later, these two facts are interconnected.

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