That something is wrong with the Pontellier marriage is self-evident, especially when one compares the dinner between the Pontelliers in Chapter 17 with that of the Ratignolles in Chapter 18. The Pontelliers may share a house, but do not seem to share much else. Edna has no interest in the elusive “business” engaged in by Léonce, and he seems to have no thought that his wife might have an interest outside of their home. The added confusion that Edna feels about Robert–an infatuation, even–implies a future in which changes will be made. At the end of Chapter 18, all it would take, it seems, is the return of Robert to induce this change.
Why should Edna be so inclined to risk her domestic safety? Léonce represents stability–if an enforced one–that is the respected idea of society. But Edna’s temperament towards the creative arts (seen in her enjoyment of music and her drawing) implies an impulsive streak in her, a possibility for abandonment that might lead to her passions revealing themselves. Edna seems to be oblivious to the necessities that fund her lifestyle, so even poverty is not necessarily a hindrance to throwing over her marriage in a fit of passion.
Given the foregoing, one might think that Edna would be tempted to leave her husband. While she might challenge the “conventions” of her state and status, I think that she will stop herself from that final leap off the cliff of respectability. Just as she “awakens” to her newfound ability to swim and immediately tests herself by swimming farther offshore than is likely safe for such a beginner, she is able to recognize the danger in her situation and summon the strength to return before any harm is done. This bathing scene strikes me as both a perfect metaphor for her discontent and desire to push the limits of her situation, but also a foreshadowing of the events to come. Edna is decidedly unhappy in her life, but is she suicidal (i.e., mad enough to destroy her safe life)?
I concentrate on Edna for hers is the main perspective of the story, although we do obtain a limited amount from Robert’s point-of-view. We are not privy to the true reason for his sudden departure, but the combination of the warning issued by Mrs. Ratignolle, the comments made by Marguerite, and his own faltering farewell speech indicates that he removes himself for the safety of distance from Edna, realizing that their relationship is growing to be more than simply polite companionship.
All in all, at midway through The Awakening, the subject seems to be the disillusionment of loveless marriage, in contrast to what Edna terms “life’s delirium” in the last paragraph of Chapter 18. From the point-of-view of her friends and acquaintances, Edna’s life seems perfect: a doting husband, two lovely and healthy children, a household with the domestic amenities, a house that is perfectly appointed. Underneath this surface perfection runs a weak thread, a flaw in the looking glass, which is the life of the mind. Edna’s consciousness does not mirror this outward happiness seen by her friends, and it is this inconsistency that threatens to shatter the picture of domestic bliss. This emphasis on the mind makes The Awakening a precursor to the modernist style. While it still expresses the story of Edna through a flat, third person narration typical of the past, its psychological method is a harbinger of novels to come.
[Finished September 1999]