Summary and Analysis
In Chapter 7, Edna and Madame Ratignolle walk to the beach and sit on the porch of their adjoining beach houses. Edna confides to Madame Ratignolle much of her past history of infatuation with unattainable men. They are interrupted by Robert approaching with their children. Edna joins the children in their play tent on the beach while Madame Ratignolle asks Robert to help her back to her cottage.
In Chapter 8, Madame Ratignolle asks Robert to leave Edna alone rather than continue with his devoted, if platonic, attentions. He takes offense, pointing out that he is not like Alcée Arobin, a well-known womanizer. After walking Madame Ratignolle to her room, Robert joins his mother, who mentions that their friend Montel is in Mexico, should Robert like to join him there to pursue business interests. Robert is impatient to learn more about this prospect but is easily distracted by his mother's mention of Edna's likely return from the beach.
Chapter 7 reveals much about Edna's history of rebellion: running away into the fields to escape her father's gloomy prayer services and marrying Léonce not out of personal passion for him but because of her family's "violent opposition" to her marrying a Catholic man. All her life she has maintained the duality of "that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Even her physique differs from other women's; her body "occasionally fell into splendid poses," displaying a rather severe physical grace that sets her apart from other women. Note, however, that Chopin uses the term "occasionally" rather than "consistently:" Edna's small life is not one destined for greatness.
Prior to her married life, Edna experienced several sexual, passionate obsessions with men that could not lead to actual relationships. While fixated on a dead writer, Edna felt that the "persistence of the infatuation lent it an aspect of genuineness. The hopelessness of it colored it with the lofty tones of a great passion." Such a perception of passion for a dead man, whom she never met, indicates the severity of Edna's weakness for the melodrama of unrequited or unfulfilled love. Further, she enjoyed the subterfuge of such a relationship: "Anyone may possess the portrait of a tragedian without exciting suspicion or comment. (This was a sinister reflection which she cherished.)" Her infatuations may seem grand in their intensity of feeling but are actually rather childish in scope. When she says about her running away from the prayer services that "I was a little unthinking child . . . just following a misleading impulse without question," she could be describing her entire life — the small-scale romantic obsessions, her marriage to Léonce, having her own children. Even her actions later in the novel arise partly from genuine rebellion and partly from whimsy.
As she confides many of these things to Madame Ratignolle, she experiences for the first time a genuine expression of her small self, which intoxicates her "like wine, or like a first breath of freedom." Relating her history of minor rebellions and hopeless passions, she sets the stage for her development that summer into the kind of woman who is strong enough to act on her dissatisfaction with her role as wife and mother that is so far from her true personality, which craves independence.
Significantly, she tells Madame Ratignolle "sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadows again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided." Not only does this description foreshadow her death in water that reminds her of waves of grass, but also indicates that Edna is once again "running away from prayers," turning her back on the values of organized religion and her own culture.
Note that Edna realizes with relief after she is married that "no trace of passion . . . colored her affection [for Léonce], thereby threatening its dissolution." Ironically, her lack of passion for her husband drives her to Robert, who attempts to portray himself as a grandly passionate man. Further, if all passion eventually burns itself out, so too will her love for Robert, a fact she realizes in the end.
While Chapter 7 depicts Madame Ratignolle as not much of a thinker (she objects when Edna becomes momentarily analytical), Chapter 8 reveals her as a shrewd realist about interpersonal dynamics, asking Robert to "let Mrs. Pontellier alone." Having heard Edna's confession of past infatuations, Madame Ratignolle is attempting to short circuit the likely development of an attachment that can cause only marital and social conflict.
Robert's response certainly foreshadows his ultimate entanglement with Edna. Although he has established a pattern of engaging in rhetoric instead of action — the mock romances with married women, the unfulfilled intention to seek his fortune in Mexico — evidently he does wish to be taken seriously, to receive credit as a passionate lover and successful entrepreneur based on his intentions rather than his acts. "I hope she has discernment enough to find in me something besides the blaguer," he says, revealing the attitude that Edna could only do herself credit to find worth in him and perceive him as a man to be reckoned with. Yet Madame Ratignolle immediately and candidly identifies the truth of the situation: "You speak with about as little reflection as . . . one of those children down there." Robert is still emotionally immature, which probably motivates his hollow romantic gestures towards women with whom he never expects to pursue a serious adult relationship.
Note that Robert offers as proof of his own virtue a comparison to Alcée Arobin, the gentleman with whom Edna will become sexually involved later.
Although he initially resents Madame Ratignolle's suggestion, betraying his own illusions about the depth of his character, by the time they reach her cottage, he has regained enough composure to admit that Madame Ratignolle should have instead "warned me against taking myself seriously. Your advice might then have . . . given me subject for some reflection." However, if Madame Ratignolle's comment does cause him to engage in reflection, it is more likely speculation about the situation's possibilities, as is implied by how easily he is distracted from Montel's letter by the suggestion that Edna may be approaching. Madame Ratignolle's well-meant advice underlies Robert and Edna's later emotional entanglement, poised as both are, like children, to indulge in the high drama of thwarted romance.
The ideal of romance is illustrated by the courting couple who is also vacationing at the pension, shown "leaning toward each other as the wateroaks bent from the sea. There was not a particle on earth beneath their feet," so high are they on the newness and passion of their romance. Interestingly, the sternly religious lady in black is frequently shown "creeping behind them," like a dark cloud threatening their happiness. The lady in black represents anti-passion: She moves slowly, is always alone, and is usually engaged in religious rituals such as praying on her rosary. She is the cooling of passion that inevitably follows the first flush of romance and youth's energetic infatuations.
Representing the sometimes-negative energy of youth is Victor, Robert's younger brother. Victor's impetuous, willful behavior indicates a lack of consideration for others, a trait often tempered by the responsibilities and realities of adult life. While Robert does not have his younger brother's temper, his habit of spending summers at his mother's resort paying court to married women rather than pursuing a career or a wife renders his own level of emotional maturity suspect.
fashion-plate a fashionably dressed person.
muslin any of various strong, often sheer cotton fabrics of plain weave; especially a heavy variety used for sheets, pillowcases, and so on.
collar a cloth band or folded-over piece attached to the neck of a garment.
gallery a veranda or porch.
crash a coarse cotton or linen cloth with a plain, loose weave, used for towels, curtains, clothes, and so on.
lateen a triangular, fore-and-aft-rigged sail suspended on a slant from a portion of the ship's mast.
ma chère my dear.
pauvre chérie poor dear.
held controversies conducted a lengthy discussion of an important question in which opposing opinions clash.
Tiens! Voilà que Madame Ratignolle est jalouse! Finally! It appears that Madame Ratignolle is jealous!
programme the acts, speeches, and musical pieces that make up an entertainment or ceremony.
Ma foi! Indeed! (literally "my goodness").
au revoir goodbye.
bouillon a clear broth, usually of beef.
Sèvres a type of fine French porcelain.
bon garçon good boy (or good waiter).
ether the upper regions of space; clear sky.
treadle a lever or pedal moved by the foot as to turn a wheel.
Goncourt Edmond Louis Antoine Huot de Goncourt (1822-1896); French novelist and art critic.
tête montée hot-headed person.