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Free Study Guide-The Awakening by Kate Chopin-Free Online Booknotes
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Chapters XVII-XXI

Summary (continued)

Edna works at her pictures. Léonce thinks she could also perform her household duties. After all, Adèle Ratignolle both plays her music and manages her household. Edna wants to be left alone, and Léonce complies. She goes up to her atelier and gets everyone in the house to pose for her, but she is never quite satisfied with the results. She sings, "Ah! si tu savais!," and thinks of Robert. Her desire is awakened by this memory. On some days she is unutterably happy, and on other days she is depressed and cannot work. She does not know why.

On one such day Edna decides to go in search of Mademoiselle Reisz, to hear her play the piano and talk of summer. But the address she has is old, and after asking both the lodgers at Mademoiselle's old apartment and the neighborhood grocer (neither of whom have any helpful information about Mademoiselle Reisz), Edna still has no way of finding her. Adèle would not know her address, for she dislikes Mademoiselle Reisz. But Madame Lebrun is back in town and might know where to find her.

The Lebrun house is a fortress of iron in the old style, and Victor, Robert's younger brother, answers the gate. He is surprised to see Edna, appears quite handsome, and argues with the black maid about her duties. Edna wants to stay on the porch, and Victor stays with her, continuing to criticize the black maid, and then explaining that he is only in town for a short while (he lives at the Grand Isle house through the winter, keeping an eye on things) and has been having a wild time lately. Despite the fact that he is full of himself, Edna enjoys his company. He senses this, and starts to tell more daring stories, but he is interrupted by Madame Lebrun's arrival. She greets Edna with the usual welcome and considerate questions one might expect of an accomplished hostess. As his mother talks, Victor plays with Edna's umbrella and makes faces behind his mother's back. Edna, feeling like a partner in crime, tries to look disapproving.

They tell her that Robert has written two letters. After some protest and glib recitation, Victor goes to get them. They are full of random news and contain no mention of Edna. She is depressed and remembers to ask for Mademoiselle Reisz's address. Madame Lebrun gives it to her, regretting that Edna cannot stay and visit. Victor walks her out and later remarks to his mother that Madame Pontellier looks like a new woman: she is "ravishing" now that she is back in the city. Edna remembers too late that she should not have been so free with Victor.

Mademoiselle Reisz always lives on upper floors, in lodgings with dingy windows and her old furniture. She has a nice view, and a wonderful piano crowds the space. She cooks and eats there. Some people say that she lives upstairs to avoid beggars, peddlers, and callers.

When Edna enters, Mademoiselle Reisz laughs in surprise at seeing her. Mademoiselle Reisz looks especially homely, contorted and odd. She still has artificial violets in her hair. She sits holding Edna's hand, although not warmly, and claims to have decided that Edna would never come to see her because ladies like her always lie about such things, and she did not think that Edna liked her anyway. Edna quite frankly states that she does not know whether she likes her or not. This candidness is attractive to Mademoiselle Reisz. She serves Edna coffee and tells her that Robert has sent a letter and asked all about Edna. Edna wants to see the letter, but Mademoiselle Reisz does not want to show it to her. She tells Edna that Robert has requested her to play Chopin's "Impromptu" for Edna, study Edna's reaction, and then write back to him. Edna pleads for the letter. Mademoiselle says no and asks Edna what she has been doing. Edna tells her about the painting, and Mademoiselle Reisz reminds her that to be a true artist takes courage and daring, as well as gifts that "are not acquired by one's own efforts." Edna, who still wants to see the letter, asks if persistence counts for anything in art. Mademoiselle Reisz laughs, tells her where to find the letter, and sits at the piano to play for Edna. She plays improvisations that move in and out of Chopin's "Impromptu" and Isolde's love song. Nighttime comes, and Edna is crying. She asks Mademoiselle Reisz if she may come visit again. Mademoiselle says yes, whenever she likes. When Edna leaves, Mademoiselle Reisz finds Robert's letter on the floor, crumpled and tear-stained. She returns it to the drawer.


In this section the reader is returned to the Pontelliers' life in New Orleans. One gets a taste of their "old" life simply through Edna's refusal to live it any longer. They are wealthy, they enjoy their leisure time, and they are used to having a traditional marriage. Léonce is angered and upset by Edna's desire to change the rules, especially since she has no deliberate strategy or goal. For a while, Léonce has decided to leave her alone.

When Edna visits the Ratignolles, she is profoundly dissatisfied by what she sees. It is not that she wants a cozy home life like the Ratignolles have, it is that she finds such a thing stifling and uninteresting. Her art is a creative outlet, but even that does not bring her much satisfaction. At this point, the fire within her is making her attractive to the people with whom she comes in contact. Edna is fully alive, yet aimlessly searching. She will do as she likes, but she does not quite know what she wants.

When she decides to look for Mademoiselle Reisz, she is both searching for the past (Robert) and searching for an artistic connection. When she goes to the Lebrun household, she finds even the brazen young Victor to be somewhat appealing. But Madame Lebrun's conversation is exactly the sort of thing that Edna wants to avoid: bland convention.

Edna gets a very different sort of conversation with Mademoiselle Reisz. They are very frank with each other. Mademoiselle Reisz is almost rude, as several other characters have already mentioned. She plays a manipulative game with Edna over Robert's letter and seems to revel in the discomfort that she can elicit in others. Also, in this section, there is a warning about art and the artist's life: one must be courageous to live this way. Chopin is implying that Edna's task is very difficult. Edna hardly listens, preferring instead to focus on Robert's letter, and working herself up into a stormy sob-session ("life's delirium").

It is worth noting that Chopin, by this time in the book, has established a sort of "chorus" (in drama, the chorus is formed of characters who comment on the action). There are always black servants in the background, carrying out tasks and never really speaking, but watching their employers and keeping a wary distance. Many southern writers of Chopin's time period left the black servant class completely out of their novels, as if these people simply did not exist. In Chopin's work, and particularly in this novel, one can sense that these people make their own silent assessments of events. Indeed, in these passages, one gets the feeling that the "silent chorus" sees through all the outward dealings of their employers and has a very clear idea of what is actually going on, and where it will lead.

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