Summary and Analysis
The novel opens with Léonce Pontellier, a vacationer on Grand Isle (which is just off the coast of New Orleans), reading a newspaper and surveying his surroundings. He is annoyed by a caged parrot loudly repeating its stock phrases, and so leaves the main building of the pension (boardinghouse) for his own cottage. Léonce's wife, Edna Pontellier, and her friend Robert Lebrun return from their swim in the Gulf of Mexico and join Léonce. He soon departs for billiards and socializing at the nearby Klein's hotel.
Already Chopin establishes some key symbolism in the novel: Edna is the green-and-yellow parrot telling everyone to "go away, for God's sake." Unable to leave the cage, the parrot must ask everyone to leave when it would prefer to simply fly away.
The parrot knows not only French, Spanish, and English phrases but also "a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mockingbird that hung on the other side of the door." The mockingbird represents Madame Reisz (a character who is introduced in Chapter 9), the only character who is successful at making Edna tell the truth about her love for Robert that develops throughout the novel. Later chapters show how Madame Reisz's piano playing speaks to Edna's soul as if that music were the language her soul had been waiting in silence for. Mockingbirds have a reputation as obnoxious birds, and Madame Reisz shares a similar reputation as a rude, ill-tempered woman. The description of the mockingbird also sets the tone for Madame Reisz's independent behavior within the confines of the insistently polite upper-class Creole society; she too whistles her own tune "with maddening persistence."
The nature of Edna's relationships with Léonce and Robert is established in this first brief chapter, as well. Léonce, noting his wife's sunburn, expresses not concern for her potential discomfort but instead regards her "as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property that has suffered some damage." Yet Léonce and Edna have built between them a working familiarity that allows them to communicate wordlessly, such as when he hands her rings to her at her simple wordless gesture of holding out her hand. Such nonverbal communication is a tremendous bond between a couple, and is often an indication of their unity.
At the same time, Edna clearly has a bond with her platonic friend Robert that excludes her husband — this bond is represented by the adventure that she and Robert share during their swim, the joy of which they cannot communicate to Léonce. While Léonce is familiar, Robert is fun and lively. At 26, he is only two years younger than Edna, while Léonce is 12 years older. Ironically Léonce is clearly not threatened by Robert's friendship with his wife: When Robert declines Léonce's invitation to accompany him to Klein's hotel, stating "quite frankly that he preferred to . . . talk to Mrs. Pontellier," Léonce simply tells Edna to "send him about his business when he bores you."
Another motif set up in this chapter is the significance of music in Edna's life and in the novel. Two twin girls, children of other vacationers at the pension, can be heard practicing a piano duet from an opera in which a character drowns at sea — foreshadowing musically Edna's ultimate fate.
Issue of class and race are implicitly addressed, as well: Edna's own children have a quadroon (meaning she is one-quarter African) nanny. She attends to Edna's boys "with a faraway, meditative air." However, while she may be entertaining the same thoughts of independence from society's demands that Edna later has, she lacks the economic freedom to pursue life on her own terms, particularly in the intensely bigoted atmosphere of 1890s Louisiana. Like most of the servant characters, she is not named and her voice is never heard.
"Allez vous-en! Sapristi!" French phrases meaning "Go away! For God's sake!"
Grand Isle an island off the Louisiana coast, about fifty miles south of New Orleans.
Zampa an opera written by Ferdinand Herold in which a character drowns at sea.
telling her beads praying on her rosary.
pension a term used in France and other continental countries for a boardinghouse.
Chênière Caminada a small island lying between Grand Isle and the Louisiana coast.
lugger a small vessel equipped with a lugsail or lugsails.
quadroon a person who has one black grandparent; child of a mulatto and a white.
sunshade a parasol used for protection against the sun's rays.
lawn sleeves sleeves made from lawn, a fine, sheer cloth of linen or cotton.