The Awakening By Kate Chopin Summary and Analysis Chapter 4

Summary

Madame Ratignolle is introduced in this chapter as the embodiment of the "mother-women," the Creole wives who always place husband and children before themselves. Because Edna's behavior and attitudes differ from the mother-women's, Léonce sometimes doubts Edna's devotion to her children. Madame Ratignolle, sewing winter garments for her children, openly makes references to her pregnancy, which shocks Edna who is taken aback by mention of any matter pertaining to sex. Edna finds that Creole women do not share such taboos and are more open to discussion and literature containing references to sexual matters.

Analysis

The key development in this chapter is the distinction Chopin makes between Edna and the mother-women, those women who, nun-like, "esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Such winged angels are quite different from the birds described in Chapter 1 — the anti-social parrot and the obnoxious mockingbird that represent Edna and Madame Reisz. The mother-women idolize their children and husbands, feeling it appropriate and necessary to sacrifice their own personal needs and expression.

Madame Ratignolle is described as "the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm," the ultimate mother-woman. Despite their philosophical differences, Madame Ratignolle greatly enjoys Edna's company, possibly because Edna is the only non-Creole among the Grand Isle vacationers and so provides more diversion. At this point, Edna is still following social conventions faithfully: Although she thinks it excessive of Madame Ratignolle to make winter clothes for her children during the summer, Edna dutifully copies the sewing pattern for later use so that she will not appear "unamiable and uninterested."

Chopin's description of the all-enclosing winter pajamas lends a hysterical tone to their construction: The pajamas are meant to protect the child from "insidious currents of deadly cold" that may find "their way through keyholes." Edna feels her children's summer needs are being met and isn't interested in anticipating their winter needs, a pragmatic approach that probably underlies Léonce's doubts about Edna's devotion to her children — she is not inclined to become hysterical about their welfare. Her children seem to have benefited from her calmness: When they take a spill during playtime, each boy is likely to "pick himself up . . . and go on playing" rather than rush to his mother. In fact, in playground conflicts, Edna's boys "usually prevailed against the other mother-tots" who are more dependent upon their mothers as external sources of comfort and strength.

Note that Léonce and Robert were probably raised by mother-women, in contrast to Edna, who lost her mother at an early age. Robert, in fact, continues to return to his mother during summers, an extension of little mother-tots' tendency to run to their mothers.

Another way in which Edna differs from the Creole women is, ironically, her prudery. Mainstream America in the 1890s considered taboo any aspect of life that touched upon sex, such as pregnancy and childbirth. In contrast, Creole women openly share their reproductive experiences with the men and feel no prohibition against reading novels with erotic content. Their ability to discuss such matters does not extend to their behavior: The Creole women seemed to have an innate "lofty chastity," an assurance that perhaps makes it possible for them to make references to sexual matters, confident in their virtue.

Edna is shocked by their free speech and blushes when Robert makes reference to one woman's pregnancy — such extreme modesty in speech now contrasts markedly with her behavior later as she rejects the very essence of her role in society.

Glossary

"condition" here, the condition of being pregnant.

Creole a person descended from the original French settlers of Louisiana, especially of the New Orleans area.

accouchement childbirth.

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Despite their differences, Madame Ratignolle enjoys Edna's company. Why?




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