They say re-reading shows you things you didn’t notice before. Whilst I was searching through The Awakening for mentions of the theme I wanted to write about, I read the following from the start of the book:
“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm.
When I read the book a couple of years ago I was constantly looking at the whole; I’d heard a lot about how good it was but had avoided spoilers, so I suppose I was reasonably overwhelmed by details (as we all are when reading a new book) and focusing on what most appealed to me at that time – the ending. Now, this time, it’s the above passage that strikes me.
It was Chopin’s obvious ‘this is what’s happening reader’ that caught me, that description of Léonce looking at Edna. It introduces the theme of the rest of the paragraph. It’s blunt. In the context of its time it’s very bold. And while it’s fiction, we know from history that it fits the social convention of the time. You get the feeling Léonce may not be able to take Edna out with him in public without cringing a little whilst she remains burned, even if it’s a normal everyday occurrence in summer and happens to everyone. But mostly it’s that idea, ‘this happens’, that’s important and the way the author is setting the tone for the rest of the book. (I find this particularly intriguing because Léonce may not be the best person but throughout the novel he’s much better than some.)
Then the passing of rings. Symbolically, in an objective sense, Edna putting her hand out for her rings, and Léonce giving them to her, suggests marriage, which it does. But it does more – Edna looks at herself in recognition of Léonce’s description of her burnt skin which turns into a transaction of rings which adds an active movement to back up Chopin’s previous sentence on property. We also have Edna ‘silently reached out to him’ and Léonce ‘understanding’ – good communion, perhaps, and also showing the back and forth of power, almost, between them. It’s not a bad relationship and they understand each other, and Edna has power as much as Léonce, but still, through all this, Chopin shows an aspect of social submission – at the beach, with Robert, possibly doing something she shouldn’t (and characters do suggest throughout that Léonce is too lenient), Edna did not wear her rings. Once back with Léonce, she takes them back, conforming to expectations, reverting to her role as a wife. And she did not ask or take them. And all this fits neatly into an objective and general reasoning that could be given if we were to say that it’s just a story – rings in water get rusty. (Perhaps there’s something to that, too, a saving of something, but I reckon that is veering into over-thinking.) And those hands of hers are ‘strong, shapely’ – a capable person.
Edna gets back her rings ‘which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach’. The beach is out of bounds in their marriage. As we know from the way the sea is portrayed, Edna is herself, an individual with choices, when by the water. And Léonce kept them in his pocket.
Léonce asks if Robert wants to join him at billiards and Robert says he’ll stay put, which is fine with Léonce, who suggests Edna send Robert along when she’s bored of him. Then this:
“Here, take the umbrella,” she exclaimed, holding it out to him. He accepted the sunshade, and lifting it over his head descended the steps and walked away.
This is particularly poignant because it stresses the fact that whilst the Pontelliers conform to society, there is kindness there and communication – at least where regular everyday things are concerned (of course Edna’s later independence isn’t so good in this respect). A basic show of caring that doubles as a response to the rings – this time Edna gives something to Léonce and whilst it’s not a possessive item as the rings are, and possibly shows caring that he not become burned in the way he obviously disagrees with, it effectively moves the show of possession back to Edna’s court. And it also perhaps furthers the idea of Edna’s independent, individual, self.
When I started thinking about this scene and what it meant, I saw a lot about social norms and little yet of Edna’s independence beyond her time with Robert but the more you read the more you see Chopin laying the groundwork straight away. I wonder how the thoughts I had, the progression of them, would match a person of the time – I’m guessing the independence, the shocking independence, would’ve been clearer earlier.