When we look at Edna’s love life, it is apparent that her first relationships were very girlish if we can ever call them relationships because they were in fact only fantasies. Thus, Edna has almost no experience when she decides to marry Léonce Pontellier. Again, we can see the lack of any help or guidance in matters of love, relationships and marriage. The absence of mother’s advice and in fact any piece of advice, forces Edna to decide important things on her own. She brings this habit to her marriage and enables us to understand that she is determined to make decisions by herself without consulting them with anybody else, not either her husband or close friends. At another time her affections were deeply engaged by a young gentleman who visited a lady on a neighbouring plantation. The young man was engaged to be married to the young lady, and they sometimes called upon Margaret (Edna’s older sister).
Edna was a little miss, just merging into her teens; and the realization that she herself was nothing, nothing, nothing to the engaged young man was a bitter affliction to her senses. (17)
As the above extract shows, Edna’s first feelings of love were very deep and passionate; however, they were aroused by people who could never return her love. They could be a dream but not a reality. These people were either too old with no interest in her or they belonged to somebody else or they were just a photograph on her table, whose real living form she never met. All her relationships before the marriage were far from the common ones and the same applied to Edna’s character and disposition. Her fantasies and dreams blended with the reality, which was observable already at the time of her first unfulfilled loves.
I believe that her “dream loves” might have been Edna’s way to escape from the oppressing reality. There was nobody to comfort her at the time of growing up, so she found her “dream loves” and experienced a special sort of intimacy with them.
From the extract, another of Edna’s typical characteristics is obvious – her resistance to circumstances. The young man, whom she fell in love with, was not free; he was in a relationship with the woman he was going to marry. However, these circumstances were not too important for Edna; they could not make her stop loving him. Apparently, even as a small girl or an adolescent, she did not give up easily once she decided about something.
The novel brings a picture of marriage and relationships on the example of two completely different families – the Pontelliers and the Ratignolles.
I focus on the Pontellier’s family because Edna belongs to it. The family seems to function at the beginning, before Edna’s awakening, but I dare to claim that the family harmony is only an illusion observed by outsiders. Edna’s and Léonce marriage cannot work well because it was not made from shared love.
For Edna it was a reasonable decision, something like a beneficial business contract, which unfortunately did not pay at the end. It can also be viewed as an act of rebellion or an attempt to escape from her father’s oppression with hopes for a better future at least. We can deduce that Edna’s father relationship to her, when she was small, was not that of a loving father. As we are told, “he had coerced his own wife into a grave” (71) and his advice to Leonce on how to control Edna, shows his brutality and a lack of sympathy: “Authority, coercion are what is needed. Put your food down good and hard; the only way to manage a wife” (71). Edna’s father does not appear to provide Edna with a safe and harmonious childhood.
Her wish to escape from her father’s influence resulted in her marriage with Léonce Pontellier.
Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages, which masquerades as the decrees of Fate. It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with earnestness and ardour that left nothing to be desired. He pleased her and his absolute devotion flattered her. She thought there was a harmony of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken.
Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives, which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband. (18)
When Edna perceives her marriage as a mistake, it is mainly because she knows that it did not develop from passionate love. It was a revolt and an escape more than anything else. Her marriage lacks the bond. As a married couple, they shared their house but not their desires and intimacy. Edna and Léonce do not live for each other. For Edna, entering the marriage means leaving her romantic dreams and fantasies behind and facing the reality and duties.
However, I think that all her feelings referring to marriage are negative because she did not fully experience the power and strength of falling in love. In addition, she married a typical Creole man, thus a total devotion and love is expected from her.
She did not make a good choice with her life partner, therefore she feels empty, unfulfilled and unhappy in her relationship with him. Although in a course of time she “grew fond of him”, she never started truly loving him.
I will describe Mr. Pontellier´s character on particular scenes in the book to show that he and Edna do not go well together. Léonce Pontellier is a forty-year-old businessman who seems to be busy and away on business a lot but is kind and generous to Edna and their children. It is demonstrated by a box with fruits, pâtés, wine and bonbons which he sends regularly when being away.
Mrs. Pontellier was always very generous with the contents of such a box; she was quite used to receiving them when away from home. The patés and fruit were brought to the dining room; the bonbons were passed around. And the ladies, selecting with dainty and discriminating fingers and a little greedily, all declared that Mr. Pontellier was the best husband in the world. Mrs. Pontellier was forced to admit that she knew of none better. (7)
This extract makes the reader think that although Mr. Pontellier is not often at home, he still thinks of his family and tries to remember himself by the parcels he sends. However, I believe he does it mainly for appearances sake, to look as a perfect husband and be admired by all women. He seems to me more conceited than generous.
It is my view that he must certainly be aware of the fact that Edna distributes almost everything he sends to others. From Edna’s reaction to praise on her husband, it is visible that she is not proud of him although he is marked to be “the best husband in the world”. She admits it as a fact but it does not stir any emotions inside her. It is pleasant but she does not care too much because she is not devoted to him. Edna does not admire her husband, she only grew fond of him and respects him.
Leonce’s behaviour to Edna expresses love and interest; however, he does not do it in the way Edna could appreciate. She does not need his regular boxes whenever he is away on business. She would value his interest in her true feelings and emotions much more but his only attention is if she fulfils her duties as a wife and mother and if she represents him well. It is one of the reasons why their marriage is passionless, boring and dysfunctional and why Edna feels a need to change something, to escape. Her desire to get away and live differently is very similar to one that was the reason for her marriage with Léonce. She appears to suffer very similar way.
It seems symbolic that the first thing the reader finds out about Leonce’s physical appearance is that he wears glasses. It does not appear to bring information about his bad sight, more likely it passes the message that his eyes are covered and unable to see relevant things. The glasses characterize him and the world he stands for. In contrast, Edna’s eyes are described as “quick and bright” (Chopin 4).
Already the first conversation Mr. Pontellier has with Edna shows his attitude towards her. After Edna’s coming back from the beach, he assesses her as “burnt beyond recognition” (2) looking at her as “one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (2). This reveals Léonce’s true character and his possessive relationship to his wife. However, at this point, Edna has not awakened yet, she has not yet freed herself from the humiliating position of a piece of property. She does not react to her husband, instead, she keeps silent. It is symbolic that she places her wedding ring, which she had left in her husband’s keeping, back on her finger. By this gesture, she shows her obedience and reacts the way typical for most 19th century women. However, it is my view that despite her reaction something has started to change inside of her but that time she was not fully aware of it.
The above extract shows Mr. Pontellier as a materialistic and despotic type, not as a generous loving husband “the best husband in the world” (7). However, we are forced to admit that he behaves the way he is supposed to, that is, the typical conventional way.
It is one of the reasons why their marriage is passionless, boring and dysfunctional and why Edna feels a need to change something, to escape. Her desire to get away and live differently is very similar to one that was the reason for her marriage with Léonce.
The Importance of Edna’s First Swim
Edna’s process of self-discovery resulting in her transformation begins when she uncovers her past to Mrs. Ratignolle.
The second significant moment and I dare to say that the most important one, is Edna’s first swim. This experience can be viewed as the decisive step towards her self-realization because it symbolizes rebirth as well as maturation. It is also the beginning of Edna’s rebellion because through her ability to swim, she discovers her power.
When in the water, without “a hand near to reassure her” (27), Edna is described as “the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence” (27). Before her awakening, she is afraid to trust the sea although it attracts her. “The sea represents truth and loneliness, a vast expanse of solitude and vulnerability that Edna has long been afraid to enter” (27). However, her relationship with Robert causes that she begins to search her identity. When for the first time in her life and after many unsuccessful attempts, she is finally able to swim; it is a moment of wonder and absolute happiness.
Having learned to swim, Edna enjoys her newly gained ability of having control over her body. She “grew daring and overestimated her strength” when she wanted to swim “far out, where no woman had swum before” (27). We observe the swim to liberate her and at the same time make her independent on the help of others. As she finds the strength within herself, she relies on it, which makes her feel that she can do anything. She finds out that she is no longer dependent on others, she is herself..
She is strong enough and wants to explore unknown, wants to swim beyond the point that any woman at Grand Isle had swum. This appears to symbolize Edna’s awaken desire to escape of her conventional roles of mother and wife.
One woman, a woman unable to swim walks into the sea, and another, who has swum further than she expected possible, comes out. Awakened, reborn Edna does not yet understand her change completely: “A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight. I don’t comprehend half of them” (29). However, since that moment she is a new woman living a new life.
“How easy it is!” she thought. “It is nothing,” she said aloud; “why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!” (27)
As the above extract shows, the awakened Edna is aware of her before awakening immaturity. During the first six years of her marriage, Edna always comforted to her husband’s authority as a child obeys their parents. Nevertheless, due to her first swim experience she decides no longer be ruled as a child. Due to the realization how easy the swimming is, she gains confidence and “I can manage anything” feeling.
She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself. (28)
As Anca Parvulescu states, “swimming and flying are metaphors of woman’s access to power” (3). While swimming, Edna awakened, left her childhood in the water and became an independent woman aware of her power. This woman can value herself and be her own person. She obeys nobody but herself -she stays outside when her husband asks her to go inside, she has a courage to even leave her husband and move into her own house, she can paint when she wants, she can love and even have illegitimate sex with whomever she chooses etc. She can become a “regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” (88). Nevertheless, Edna‘s awakening is not complete because when looking back, the long distance between her and the shore seems to her “a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome. A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land” (28).
Dread of death, however, reveals a downside to independence-one must rely on nothing but oneself. If viewing Edna’s attempt to swim far symbolically as swimming beyond the traditional conventions of motherhood and wifehood, Edna is not strong enough to succeed: “I never was so exhausted in my life” (28). Her lack of strength and isolation in the water could be understood as foreshadowing of her death. Through the sea which offered her a taste of mastery, Edna was beginning to “realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (31).
Edna’s awakening to self-knowledge allows her to find out all the suppressed desires and needs, hidden and neglected for so many years. The series of the subsequent awakenings mirror her efforts to fulfil them.