Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’: Role of Mademoiselle Reisz in Edna Pontellier’s Awakening
Mademoiselle Reisz is introduced to us as “…a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who has quarrelled with almost everyone….” She is unmarried, childless, and has dedicated her life to her passion – music. The narrator also describes Mademoiselle Reisz as a homely woman who has absolutely no taste in dress. Some people even argued that she “always chose apartments up under the roof…to discourage the approach of beggars, paddlers and callers.” Secluded in her ever-changing attics, she attests to the likely socially-imposed seclusion of any nineteenth-century woman who dared challenge the tolerable pattern for female achievement. She is an unconventional woman and appears relatively insignificant as we begin reading the novel.
Though remote and reserved in her communication with the other guests on Grand Isle, Mademoiselle Reisz likes the heroine of the novel, Edna Pontellier and becomes the most persuasive individual in her awakening. Their very first meeting, when Mademoiselle Reisz plays piano for Edna, leaves Edna trembling and choking with tears. It was an experience which Edna had never had – not even when her dear friend Adle Ratignolle plays for her. “The very first chords…sent a keen tremor down Mrs Pontellier’s spinal column” and her agitated physical reaction to the piano-playing testifies the capacity of her looming self discovery. Although Mademoiselle Reisz is often called upon to entertain people at gatherings with her expert piano playing, she also goes on to testify that Edna is the only one of the guests who is truly touched and moved by the music. Edna’s reaction to Mademoiselle Reisz’ music mirrors the central theme of awakening in the novel.
As against Adle Ratignolle who lives a socially accepted lifestyle, Mademoiselle Reisz is a living example of an entirely self-sufficient woman, who is ruled by her art and her passions, rather than by the expectations of society. In a way, she is the representative of the feminist movement which began emerging in 1890s, yet was still overshadowed by the prevailing attitudes. Edna’s association with Adle suggests that she will give up her rebellion and return to her marriage – the standard that was expected at the time the novel was written. However, her association with Mademoiselle Reisz suggests that she will lose everything except her art and pride. In a way, both the author and her heroine will do something revolutionary and liberating for the women of the future.
Edna is seemingly caught between two influences: a strong desire for individuality and autonomy, as exemplified by Mademoiselle Reisz, and the societal conformity and comme il faut that she sees in Adle Ratignolle. She admires the figure of Madame Ratignolle, “Mrs Pontellier liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna”, yet the “musical strains, well rendered,” by the artistry of Mademoiselle Riesz’ piano playing, “had a way of evoking pictures in her mind”. These “pictures” are the “very passions themselves… aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body”.
From the very beginning, the text points towards the imperative relationship that Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz are going to experience. The story starts with the chatter of Madam Leburn’s parrot who speaks English, French, and a little Spanish. It also speaks a “language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door….” Confined and misunderstood, the parrot represents Edna who speaks a language that nobody – not even her husband, friends, or lovers – understands. It appears that what all Edna needs is a mocking-bird, someone who could comprehend her strange language. Mademoiselle Reisz becomes this mocking-bird for Edna – the melodious bird who instigates her freedom later in the novel. Like the mocking-bird, Mademoiselle Reisz is valued by society for her musical talent and Edna (like the parrot) for her physical appearance.
Their second meeting takes place when Mademoiselle Reisz seeks out Edna shortly after Robert’s departure to Mexico and strikes the right chord by echoing “the thought which was ever in Edna’s mind…the feeling which constantly possessed her.” She asks Edna, “Do you miss your friend greatly?” Mademoiselle Reisz is the only character in the novel who comprehends and encourages the love between Robert and Edna, and serves as a true confidante for them.
Mademoiselle Reisz’ exchange with Edna by the shore cultivates a connection that continues upon their return home to New Orleans. Edna seeks out Mademoiselle Reisz’ camaraderie when she begins to ardently pursue personal independence. Mademoiselle Reisz in turn warns Edna that an artist must be brave, possessing “a courageous soul… that dares and defies.” Seeing how happy Mademoiselle Reisz is as a non-married artist inspires Edna to be more self-sufficient and to pursue her desire to paint. This relates back to the meaning of the novel – a woman’s struggle for individuality while still being married. Mademoiselle Reisz recognises in Edna the same desire for escape and independence with which she has lived her own life. A woman who devotes her life entirely to her art, Mademoiselle serves as an inspiration and model to Edna, who continues her process of awakening and independence. While Edna finds herself feeling distanced from her former confidante Adle, she becomes increasingly close to Mademoiselle Reisz, whom she is beginning to resemble.
It is during their first meeting at New Orleans that Mademoiselle plays “Isolde’s Song” for Edna which foreshadows Edna’s final scene on the Grand Isle beach where a bird with a broken wing is sinking ominously through the air to its death in the water. The imagery of the bird follows when Mademoiselle Reisz warns Edna that “the bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings”. Through her relationship with the pianist, Edna increases her awareness of herself as a woman capable of passionate art and passionate love. While the two capacities are interconnected, Mademoiselle Reisz serves to further each specifically. There was nothing which quieted the turmoil of Edna’s sense as a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz. She seems ”to reach Edna’s spirit and set it free”.
It is Mademoiselle Reisz who made Edna realise that she is not leaving her house because she has grown tired of looking after it and feels no real connection to it as her own but, because the smaller house will enable her to be independent and free. Instinct has prompted her to put away her husband’s bounty and never again to belong to another than herself. Further, it is with her help that Edna was able to admit her love for Robert and it is at her attic that she finally meets Robert when he comes back from Mexico.
However, torn between the two worlds – represented by Adle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz – Edna was not able to come to terms with her new reality. In words of Elaine Showalter, “Both the author and her heroine seem to be oscillating between two worlds, caught between contradictory definitions of femininity and creativity…” Chopin’s sense of need for independence and individuality in writing is dramatically expressed by Mademoiselle Reisz. Her voice in the novel seems to speak for the author’s view of art and the artist. In a way, along with helping in the heroine’s awakening Mademoiselle Reisz is also instrumental in the literary awakening of her creator – Kate Chopin.
Mademoiselle Reisz is the woman that Edna could have become, had she lived into her old age and remained independent of her husband and children. However, instead of running away somewhere and living alone, perhaps supporting herself as an artist in the manner of Mademoiselle Reisz, Edna is able to think only of her sons’ reputations and how they would be treated when she is gone. She was not willing to define her position in the world because to do so would involve surrendering the dream of total fulfilment. Thus while Mademoiselle Reisz could control, create and command her work, Edna was at the mercy of hers. She felt that she could only be free if she ends her life. She knew that once Lonce returned, he would still tell her what to do. She also knew that she could not leave her boys in Iberville forever. Edna could never have the true freedom she desired with her children and husband around. She also knew that Robert wanted her to be the traditional Creole wife, and is in no way different from Lonce. Edna realised this by herself, but she knew that she could not live that way, no matter how much she loved the man. Due to the talks with Reisz, Edna could see this on her own.
What Edna chooses for her identity is a combination of Adle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz – more honest in self-awareness than Adle more dependent on human relationships than Reisz. She is no longer Edna, possession of Lonce, mother of Raoul and tienne, toy of Arobin, invincible deity to Robert, but a newly born being who, tragically, wants to live according to its – not masculine or feminine – own impracticable wishes. Edna’s awakening has only brought with it a desire to break the confines of her life. Edna’s suicide is an awakening in itself. The symbolism of the bird offers a slightly different alternative: as a bird with a broken wing, Edna is a victim of fate and her society. Edna’s wings are not strong enough to overcome gravity; she is weighted down by the forces that society imposes upon her. Edna takes a chance and tries to escape from tradition. She is able to escape, but only in death, only by drowning down to the water. Given the choice between dying a quick death on her own terms versus the prospect of killing herself anew everyday, she chose a more merciful suicide.
Kate Chopin is often considered the first literary voice of the feminist movement, writing years before the beginning of the movement in the United States. In the time period in which Chopin wrote, “feminine” was the only description of women yet to exist. Indisputably, The Awakening is a clear break, a rebellion from the feminine view. Edna’s awakening is also the author’s awakening to the fact that her bold choice of female self-discovery and self-reliance will be an outrage in her society. As a woman, Chopin’s status as a writer was severely limited by the expectations of a powerfully bigoted public. When she shattered all expectations by producing a work that clearly transcended not only regionalism but also the established list of sentimental subjects thought suitable for women, the rumpus was extreme. In giving her work an open ending where suicide was just suggested, Chopin refuses to condemn Edna, which was another troubling factor for her contemporaries. Both Edna and her creator were “feminine”. Mademoiselle Reisz awakened them to the “feminist” way of thinking but, was not able to initiate them into the “female” world.