Summary and Analysis Chapter 21



Edna visits Mademoiselle Reisz, who is delighted to see her. She tells Edna she has received a letter from Robert in which he spoke constantly of Edna and asked Mademoiselle Reisz to play Chopin's "Impromptu" for her. Edna convinces Mademoiselle Reisz to allow her to read Robert's letter. She also laughingly informs Mademoiselle Reisz that she is becoming a painter, to which Mademoiselle Reisz replies that artists require "brave souls." While Mademoiselle Reisz plays the Chopin piece, Edna reads the letter and weeps with emotion, moved by the music and the indirect contact with Robert. She leaves in tears, asking leave to come visit again.


This chapter is significant for its presentation of Mademoiselle Reisz's abode, an apartment highly symbolic of her life and of the life of an artist and independent person. Mademoiselle Reisz tries to avoid the traffic of ordinary life, choosing a top floor apartment to "discourage the approach of beggars, peddlers, and callers." Her unrelenting honesty about human nature and the prescribed niceties of genteel culture underlie her desire to be removed from such pedestrian distractions.

Mademoiselle Reisz's frank appraisal of others' behaviors and virtues (or lack thereof) renders her unlikable to most everyone. Her respect for honesty is such, however, that she is "greatly pleased" by Edna's candid admission that she doesn't know whether or not she actually likes her.

Mademoiselle Reisz's isolation, both physical and social, provides more time for her art and herself. Yet there are disadvantages to her existence, as well. While she has many windows in her front room (the equivalent of a living room), they are terribly dirty, a testament to not only her lack of interest in housekeeping but also to the economic limits on single women. If she had married, she could likely afford plusher accommodations and a servant or two. The windows' filthy condition doesn't matter much, however, because they are "nearly always open," allowing in "a good deal of smoke and soot; but at the same time all the light and air that there was." With the freedom of fresh air comes the soot and smoke but Mademoiselle Reisz has learned to live with the bad that accompanies the good — just as she has learned to live with the physical and societal limitations of a single woman who insists on telling the truth.

The depiction of freedom's limitations continues with the description of her three small rooms: A "magnificent piano crowded the apartment" while she has only a gas stove for cooking and "a rare old buffet, dingy and battered" in which to keep her things. The contents of her apartment reflect her priorities. While her surroundings are not particularly comfortable, they are hers, maintained under her own terms. Mademoiselle Reisz is not attractive, rich, or well liked but has carved out an independent life nonetheless. As she plays for Edna, the music "floated out upon the night" just as the mockingbird of the first chapters, her symbolic counterpart, was "whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence." Although caged, he mocks listeners with his insistence on playing his own tune just as Mademoiselle Reisz taunts others with her honesty and independence of thought and lifestyle.

Also significant in this chapter is Mademoiselle Reisz's definition of an artist as a person who not only possesses "absolute gifts — which have not been acquired by one's own effort" but also a "brave soul. The soul that dares and defies." In this definition, the efforts of hard work and practice matter less than an innate, indisputable talent and the courage to use those talents to produce work true to itself, true to an individual vision that defies the dictates of tradition or convention.

In response to this pronouncement, Edna does not ask for clarification or offer an opinion herself; she asks only to see Robert's letter again and hear the music piece he'd mentioned. Her interests lie more with pursuing love than with developing her art. Yet in her pursuit of love, which is both incidental to and coincident with her discovery of her self, Edna shows she has the heart to dare and defy, to act in accordance with her own wishes despite extreme pressure to uphold her conventional role as faithful wife and mother. She has made passion her main priority.

From the letter Robert has written Mademoiselle Reisz, clearly he reciprocates Edna's passion for him. With the socially withdrawn Mademoiselle Reisz, he feels comfortable ostensibly revealing his obsession with Edna; she is far from being a gossip and dislikes everyone who is. Almost as if foreseeing the result of this inappropriate love, Mademoiselle Reisz intermingles her performance of the Chopin piece with the "quivering love-notes of Isolde's song," invoking the theatrical death of another woman who was in love with a man other than her husband.


prunella a strong worsted twill, used, especially formerly, as for clerical gowns, shoe uppers, and so on.

gaiter a cloth or leather covering for the instep and ankle, and, sometimes, the calf of the leg; spat or legging.

la belle dame beautiful woman.

Isolde the Irish princess of medieval legend who was betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall and loved by Tristram, the king's nephew. The legend was made into a famous opera by Richard Wagner.

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