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A READER'S JOURNAL
An 1899 Novel
ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Vintage Simon & Schuster in 1996
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011
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One hundred years after this novel was published, I received a copy of it and began reading it, but I made it only halfway through and lost track of it. On a peaceful July weekend, it seemed a good time to read it, and I read it all the way through this time. The novel starts during a summer vacation on Grand Isle, about a hundred miles drive south of where I am sitting as I write these words.
The heroine is Edna Pontellier who spent a lot of the summer with Robert Lebrun who preferred her company to that of a game of billiards with her husband Léonce at the Klein Hotel. In a short couple of paragraphs we get a precis of the Pontellier's relationship. Edna was treated as property by her husband, but she acted as a free spirit whose heart is her own property, much as the rings she placed in his keeping while she was walking on the beach.
[page 21] Mr. Pontellier finally lit a cigar and began to smoke, letting the paper drag idly from his hand. He fixed his gaze upon a white sunshade that was advancing at snail's pace from the beach. He could see it plainly between the gaunt trunks of the water-oaks and across the stretch of yellow camomile. The gulf looked far away, melting hazily into the blue of the horizon. The sunshade continued to approach slowly. Beneath its pink-lined shelter were his wife, Mrs. Pontellier, and young Robert Lebrun. When they reached the cottage, the two seated themselves with some appearance of fatigue upon the upper step of the porch, facing each other, each leaning against a supporting post.
"What folly! to bathe at such an hour in such heat!" exclaimed Mr. Pontellier. He himself had taken a plunge at daylight. That was why the morning seemed long to him.
"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 lawn 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. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. The rings sparkled upon her fingers. He sent back an answering smile.
Thus, it was not surprising when Robert decided to forgo Léonce's game of billiards to enjoy more of Edna's company.
[page 21] "Come go along, Lebrun," he proposed to Robert. But Robert admitted quite frankly that he preferred to stay where he was and talk to Mrs. Pontellier.
"Well, send him about his business when he bores you, Edna," instructed her husband as he prepared to leave.
"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.
"Coming back to dinner?" his wife called after him. He halted a moment and shrugged his shoulders. He felt in his vest pocket; there was a ten-dollar bill there. He did not know; perhaps he would return for the early dinner and perhaps he would not. It all depended upon the company which he found over at Klein's and the size of "the game." He did not say this, but she understood it, and laughed, nodding good-by to him.
Both children wanted to follow their father when they saw him starting out. He kissed them and promised to bring them back bonbons and peanuts.
Early in the novel, we see a marriage drawn and quartered, dissected by Kate Chopin’s delicate scalpel. Already we have the feeling of a Victorian marriage in decay and a love affair in bloom between Edna and Robert under the blasé eyes of her business-minded husband who trusted that the mores of the time would keep Edna within the pumpkin shell of her marriage. The next morning Léonce gave Edna half the money he had won the night before at the Klein Hotel and then eagerly left for his business on Carondelet Street in downtown New Orleans. When a box of sweets and patés later arrived on the island from her husband, the ladies with whom she generously shared them declared her husband to be to the best in the world, and Edna had to agree she knew of none better. But Edna did not fit in with the other women with children there.
[page 26] In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands and esteem it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
Robert was twenty-six years old and had since his fifteenth birthday attached himself during summers at Grand Isle to some fair lady, a young girl, a widow, or perhaps an interesting married woman like Edna. Edna was turning into an adult at the age of twenty-eight and began to realize it. I recall when Dr. Zurik, who was going to take my tonsils out when I was twenty-nine, told me, "You know this will be a serious operation. You're not a child anymore; you're an adult." It was a simple statement, but it made me realize, made me feel as a reality, for the first time, that I had become an adult. When Edna declined the offer to go to the beach with Robert, and then later accepted, she came to such a realization herself.
[page 31, 32] In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. They may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight — perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
The voice of Kate Chopin enfolds us, the reader, into its soft, close embrace. Her voice reaches across three centuries with the vibrancy and timbre of a modern voice to touch our soul. Her voice sits lightly on our soul like "the night sat lightly upon the sea and the land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep." (Page 46)
She learnt to swim for the first time after years of simply splashing about in the Gulf waters. Becoming an individual, learning to swim, she was setting out from land on her own this summer, leaving people behind her on the shore.
[page 47] Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance — that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.
Upon her return to their home on Esplanade in New Orleans at the end of the summer, we observe Mr. Pontellier and are able to deduce his relationship to Edna from this description of how he felt about his house.
[page 71] Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house examining the various appointments and details, to see that nothing was amiss. He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his, and derived genuine pleasure from contemplating a painting, a statuette, a rare lace curtain — no matter what — after he had bought it and placed it among his household goods.
Clearly, Edna was one of his household goods, and Léonce, outside of marriage obligations, never penetrated any further into Edna than into one of his delicate statuettes. If she were shiny and pretty on the outside, he was pleased. When he made a fuss over Edna's not remembering the callers of one afternoon, he was not at all interested in Edna's reasons, but rather in how her actions would upset the wives of his business contacts. He admonished her, "But it's just such seeming trifles that we've got to take seriously; such things count." They were actual trifles to Edna, but he didn't seem to notice or care. His statuette was out of place and needed to be set aright.
Robert had left to find his fortune in Mexico and remove himself from the temptation, the forbidden fruit which Edna represented to him. Edna thought of him constantly.
[page 75] As Edna walked along the street she was thinking of Robert. She was still under the spell of her infatuation. She had tried to forget him, realizing the inutility of remembering. But the thought of him was like an obsession, ever pressing itself upon her. It was not that she dwelt upon details of their acquaintance, or recalled in any special or peculiar way his personality; it was his being, his existence, which dominated her thought, fading sometimes as if it would melt into the mist of the forgotten, reviving again with an intensity which filled her with an incomprehensible longing.
Finally Léonce noticed his statuette was out of place a lot, and consulted his doctor, asking his help to fix the problem, as if it were some faulty carriage wheel and he were a blacksmith. But the doctor was helpless to fix a wheel which was rolling just fine on its own, only not where Léonce thought it should be going. Her sister's wedding in Kentucky was such a place he wanted her to roll to, but she resisted. When her father, a Colonel in the Confederate Army, visited them in New Orleans, he told stories to her and the doctor who was visiting and that allowed the doctor to tell stories about a deviant woman who returned to her homely ways after her escapades were done.
[page 92] The story did not seem especially to impress Edna. She had one of her own to tell, of a woman who paddled away with her lover one night in a pirogue and never came back. They were lost amid the Baratarian Islands, and no one ever heard of them or found a trace of them from that day to this. It was pure invention. She said that Madame Antoine had related it to her. But every glowing word seem real to those who listened.
She and Robert had rowed in a pirogue at Grand Isle one summer night, and her fancy had elaborated that incident into the dream reality she earnestly desired.
Mr. Pontellier left for the Kentucky wedding followed by a long business stay in New York and Edna was left alone, her two children placed in the arms of her mother-in-law in Iberville. She spent time with Alcée Arobin, the man her doctor hoped she would avoid, long drives, days at the races, as he tried unsuccessfully to woo Edna. She found a room of her own, a small place to rent a few steps away from the family home, and made plans to install herself into the apartment before Léonce returned. She told him of her plans and he absolutely forbid her to do so, but his words bounced off of Edna as if she were actually a statuette. Robert came to town and he as much as confessed he'd loved and missed her while in Mexico, but he would not make a move on her. She planned a dinner for about twelve of her closest friends, not the afternoon tea ladies her husband had forced her to entertain, but real friends she had met in Grand Isle and in the French Quarter on her own. It was to be a sumptuous dinner, a last supper, full of golden and silver accouterments, and she would preside as the Queen.
[page 112] The golden shimmer of Edna's satin gown spread in rich folds on either side of her. There was a soft fall of lace encircling her shoulders. it was the color of her skin, without the glow, the myriad living tints that one may sometimes discover in vibrant flesh. There was something in her attitude, in her whole appearance when she leaned her head against the high-backed chair and spread her arm, which suggested the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone.
And, in the end, she stood alone on the beach at night in Grand Isle, naked to the world, and swam out to sea.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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