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The Awakening
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Chapters VI–IX

 

Part VII

Mrs. Pontellier was not a woman given to confidences, a
characteristic hitherto contrary to her nature. Even as a child
she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very
early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that
outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.
That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the
mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her. There may have
been—there must have been—influences, both subtle and apparent,
working in their several ways to induce her to do this; but the
most obvious was the influence of Adele Ratignolle. The excessive
physical charm of the Creole had first attracted her, for Edna had
a sensuous susceptibility to beauty. Then the candor of the
woman's whole existence, which every one might read, and which
formed so striking a contrast to her own habitual reserve—this
might have furnished a link. Who can tell what metals the gods use
in forging the subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might
as well call love.
The two women went away one morning to the beach together,
arm in arm, under the huge white sunshade. Edna had prevailed upon
Madame Ratignolle to leave the children behind, though she could
not induce her to relinquish a diminutive roll of needlework, which
Adele begged to be allowed to slip into the depths of her pocket.
In some unaccountable way they had escaped from Robert.
The walk to the beach was no inconsiderable one, consisting as
it did of a long, sandy path, upon which a sporadic and tangled growth
that bordered it on either side made frequent and unexpected inroads.
There were acres of yellow camomile reaching out on either hand.
Further away still, vegetable gardens abounded, with frequent
small plantations of orange or lemon trees intervening.
The dark green clusters glistened from afar in the sun.
The women were both of goodly height, Madame Ratignolle
possessing the more feminine and matronly figure. The charm of
Edna Pontellier's physique stole insensibly upon you. The lines of
her body were long, clean and symmetrical; it was a body which
occasionally fell into splendid poses; there was no suggestion of
the trim, stereotyped fashion-plate about it. A casual and
indiscriminating observer, in passing, might not cast a second
glance upon the figure. But with more feeling and discernment he
would have recognized the noble beauty of its modeling, and the
graceful severity of poise and movement, which made Edna Pontellier
different from the crowd.
She wore a cool muslin that morning—white, with a waving
vertical line of brown running through it; also a white linen
collar and the big straw hat which she had taken from the peg
outside the door. The hat rested any way on her yellow-brown hair,
that waved a little, was heavy, and clung close to her head.
Madame Ratignolle, more careful of her complexion, had twined
a gauze veil about her head. She wore dogskin gloves, with
gauntlets that protected her wrists. She was dressed in pure
white, with a fluffiness of ruffles that became her. The draperies
and fluttering things which she wore suited her rich, luxuriant
beauty as a greater severity of line could not have done.
There were a number of bath-houses along the beach, of rough
but solid construction, built with small, protecting galleries
facing the water. Each house consisted of two compartments, and
each family at Lebrun's possessed a compartment for itself, fitted
out with all the essential paraphernalia of the bath and whatever
other conveniences the owners might desire. The two women had no
intention of bathing; they had just strolled down to the beach for
a walk and to be alone and near the water. The Pontellier and
Ratignolle compartments adjoined one another under the same roof.
Mrs. Pontellier had brought down her key through force of
habit. Unlocking the door of her bath-room she went inside, and
soon emerged, bringing a rug, which she spread upon the floor of
the gallery, and two huge hair pillows covered with crash, which
she placed against the front of the building.
The two seated themselves there in the shade of the porch,
side by side, with their backs against the pillows and their feet
extended. Madame Ratignolle removed her veil, wiped her face with
a rather delicate handkerchief, and fanned herself with the fan
which she always carried suspended somewhere about her person by a
long, narrow ribbon. Edna removed her collar and opened her dress
at the throat. She took the fan from Madame Ratignolle and began
to fan both herself and her companion. It was very warm, and for
a while they did nothing but exchange remarks about the heat, the
sun, the glare. But there was a breeze blowing, a choppy, stiff
wind that whipped the water into froth. It fluttered the skirts of
the two women and kept them for a while engaged in adjusting,
readjusting, tucking in, securing hair-pins and hat-pins. A few
persons were sporting some distance away in the water. The beach
was very still of human sound at that hour. The lady in black was
reading her morning devotions on the porch of a neighboring
bathhouse. Two young lovers were exchanging their hearts' yearnings
beneath the children's tent, which they had found unoccupied.
Edna Pontellier, casting her eyes about, had finally kept them
at rest upon the sea. The day was clear and carried the gaze out
as far as the blue sky went; there were a few white clouds
suspended idly over the horizon. A lateen sail was visible in the
direction of Cat Island, and others to the south seemed almost
motionless in the far distance.
"Of whom—of what are you thinking?" asked Adele of her
companion, whose countenance she had been watching with a little
amused attention, arrested by the absorbed expression which seemed
to have seized and fixed every feature into a statuesque repose.
"Nothing," returned Mrs. Pontellier, with a start, adding at
once: "How stupid! But it seems to me it is the reply we make
instinctively to such a question. Let me see," she went on,
throwing back her head and narrowing her fine eyes till they shone
like two vivid points of light. "Let me see. I was really not
conscious of thinking of anything; but perhaps I can retrace my
thoughts."
"Oh! never mind!" laughed Madame Ratignolle. "I am not quite
so exacting. I will let you off this time. It is really too hot
to think, especially to think about thinking."
"But for the fun of it," persisted Edna. "First of all, the
sight of the water stretching so far away, those motionless sails
against the blue sky, made a delicious picture that I just wanted
to sit and look at. 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 the 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 don't remember now. I was just walking diagonally across
a big field. My sun-bonnet obstructed the view. I could see only
the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on
forever, without coming to the end of it. I don't 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
chere?" asked Madame Ratignolle, amused.
"No! oh, no!" Edna hastened to say. "I was a little
unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse
without question. On the contrary, during one period of my life
religion took a firm hold upon me; after I was twelve and
until-until—why, I suppose until now, though I never thought much about
it—just driven along by habit. But do you know," she broke off,
turning her quick eyes upon Madame Ratignolle and leaning forward
a little so as to bring her face quite close to that of her companion,
"sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green
meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided."
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 stroked it a little, fondly,
with the other hand, murmuring in an undertone, "Pauvre cherie."
The action was at first a little confusing to Edna, but she
soon lent herself readily to the Creole's gentle caress. She was
not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection,
either in herself or in others. She and her younger sister, Janet,
had quarreled a good deal through force of unfortunate habit. Her
older sister, Margaret, was matronly and dignified, probably from
having assumed matronly and housewifely responsibilities too early
in life, their mother having died when they were quite young,
Margaret was not effusive; she was practical. 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 own character had much, perhaps
everything, to do with this. Her most intimate friend at school
had been one of rather exceptional intellectual gifts, who wrote
fine-sounding essays, which Edna admired and strove to imitate; and
with her she talked and glowed over the English classics, and
sometimes held religious and political controversies.
Edna often wondered at one propensity which sometimes had
inwardly disturbed her without causing any outward show or
manifestation on her part. At a very early age—perhaps it was
when she traversed the ocean of waving grass—she remembered that
she had been passionately enamored of a dignified and sad-eyed
cavalry officer who visited her father in Kentucky. She could not
leave his presence when he was there, nor remove her eyes from his face,
which was something like Napoleon's, with a lock of black hair failing
across the forehead. But the cavalry officer melted imperceptibly out
of her existence.
At another time her affections were deeply engaged by a young
gentleman who visited a lady on a neighboring plantation. It was
after they went to Mississippi to live. The young man was engaged
to be married to the young lady, and they sometimes called upon
Margaret, driving over of afternoons in a buggy. 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. But he, too, went the way of dreams.
She was a grown young woman when she was overtaken by what she
supposed to be the climax of her fate. It was when the face and
figure of a great tragedian began to haunt her imagination and stir
her senses. The persistence of the infatuation lent it an aspect
of genuineness. The hopelessness of it colored it with the lofty
tones of a great passion.
The picture of the tragedian stood enframed upon her desk.
Any one may possess the portrait of a tragedian without exciting
suspicion or comment. (This was a sinister reflection which she
cherished.) In the presence of others she expressed admiration for
his exalted gifts, as she handed the photograph around and dwelt
upon the fidelity of the likeness. When alone she sometimes picked
it up and kissed the cold glass passionately.
Her marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in
this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade 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 an earnestness and an ardor which
left nothing to be desired. He pleased her; his absolute devotion
flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy 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.
The acme of bliss, which would have been a marriage with the
tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of
a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a
certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals
forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.
But it was not long before the tragedian had gone to join the
cavalry officer and the engaged young man and a few others; and
Edna found herself face to face with the realities. She grew fond
of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that
no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her
affection, thereby threatening its dissolution.
She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She
would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would
sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the
summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling
secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them
except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a
sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It
seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly
assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her.
Edna did not reveal so much as all this to Madame Ratignolle
that summer day when they sat with faces turned to the sea. But a
good part of it escaped her. She had put her head down on Madame
Ratignolle's shoulder. She was flushed and felt intoxicated with
the sound of her own voice and the unaccustomed taste of candor.
It muddled her like wine, or like a first breath of freedom.
There was the sound of approaching voices. It was Robert,
surrounded by a troop of children, searching for them. The two
little Pontelliers were with him, and he carried Madame
Ratignolle's little girl in his arms. There were other children
beside, and two nurse-maids followed, looking disagreeable and
resigned.
The women at once rose and began to shake out their draperies
and relax their muscles. Mrs. Pontellier threw the cushions and
rug into the bath-house. The children all scampered off to the
awning, and they stood there in a line, gazing upon the intruding
lovers, still exchanging their vows and sighs. The lovers got up,
with only a silent protest, and walked slowly away somewhere else.
The children possessed themselves of the tent, and Mrs.
Pontellier went over to join them.
Madame Ratignolle begged Robert to accompany her to the house;
she complained of cramp in her limbs and stiffness of the joints.
She leaned draggingly upon his arm as they walked.
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