The Awakening: Novel Summary: Part 16

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Chapter 16

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The summer at Grand Isle is drawing to an end. Edna has learned how to swim-"a diversion which afforded her the only real pleasurable moments that she knew" in the wake of Robert's departure. One of the ways in which Edna has been coping with Robert's absence is by looking at his family's photographs with Madame Lebrun, who has received a letter from her son. Edna asks to see the letter. She scrutinizes it in great detail, hoping to find in it a message for her. She finds none, and is envious of Madame Lebrun, for Robert wrote to his mother but not to her.
Even Mr. Pontellier knows that Edna misses Robert, and asks how she is handling his leaving. He does not seem at all jealous or suspicious, however-another indication that, unlike his wife, he is not "awakened." Indeed, he tells Edna that he shared a drink and a smoke with Robert in New Orleans before Robert left for Mexico. They discussed Robert's business plans-not Edna. Mr. Pontellier clearly does not know the truth of his wife's inner, emotional life any more than he knows the truth of his own.
Edna recalls a conversation she had with Madame Ratignolle-the archetypal "mother-woman" herself-in which she told Ad�le that she, Edna, would never sacrifice herself for her children. When Ad�le objected, Edna clarified: "I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself." This notable distinction between physical life and true self signals an important question in The Awakening: What is "essential" to the "self"? The whole story chronicles Edna's attempts to answer that question for herself. She will not accept any outside authority's answer, not even the answers of organized religion: Ad�le tells her that no woman could do more than give her life for her children, because "your Bible tells you so." Edna responds that one can, in fact, do more-this self-sacrifice that is more than a laying down of one's physical life; seemingly, an act of self-denial and self-annihilation that Edna is unwilling to commit. Perhaps readers could draw a distinction between physical and spiritual suicide-a distinction that may bear on one's interpretation of the novel's conclusion.
At the beach one morning, Mademoiselle Reisz informs Edna that, contrary to what Edna had believed, Robert was not his mother's favorite son. That honor belonged to Robert's brother Victor. Edna learns from Mademoiselle Reisz that Robert and Victor came to blows a year or two previously over a Spanish girl named Mariequita (whom we first glimpsed in Chapter XII): Victor "considered that he had some sort of claim upon" Mariequita (in much the same way that Mr. Pontellier believes himself to possess a claim upon Edna?), and when he saw Mariequita "talking to the girl, or walking with her, or bathing with her, or carrying her basket-I don't remember what" (note the ambiguous nature of Robert and Mariequita's relationship, mirroring the ambiguity of his relationship to Edna, an ambiguity of which Robert is aware, given his comments in Chapter XII), the two brothers fought over her. Ironically, Mademoiselle Reisz concludes her story by claiming that Mariequita, and not Robert, is to blame; compare this conclusion with Madame Ratignolle's cautionary statements to Robert at the beginning of Chapter VIII, the warning that Edna might take him seriously.
Interestingly, Edna considers Mademoiselle Reisz' statements to be "venom," as if she is unwilling to see the truth about Robert. Instead, she returns to swimming "with an abandon that thrilled and invigorated her."

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