Critical Essays Art in Edna Pontellier’s Life

Like the rest of Edna’s character, her identity as a painter is not clear cut. She is neither a recreational artist like Madame Ratignolle, whose musicianship is another element of consummate domesticity, nor a serious artiste like Mademoiselle Reisz, who has a piano rather than a personal life. The progress Edna makes in her paintings and illustrations is more of an indication of her growth than a catalyst for it. Instead, it is music that engenders change in Edna, inciting her to experience great passions otherwise lacking in her daily life. In that sense, art does play a pivotal role in her emotional and personal awakening but Edna hardly represents the archetypal artist.

An evaluation of the role of music in Edna’s life requires a comparison of her two friends, both musicians who play for her: Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. Each woman represents a path Edna can take in pursuit of her art and her independence.

Edna always enjoyed listening to Madame Ratignolle play the piano; the pieces invoked certain mental images that represented the music’s theme. Yet because Madame Ratignolle’s played sentimental pieces in a rather mundane fashion, the images Edna envisioned were rather mundane, as well — a woman stroking a cat or children at play. When she hears Mademoiselle Reisz play, the powerful artistry of the performance causes her to experience viscerally the extraordinary passions of the piece rather than forming a sentimental image of those emotions. Once back in New Orleans, she comes to prefer Mademoiselle Reisz’s violently emotion-provoking performances in the dingy apartment to Madame Ratignolle’s domesticated performances at her fashionable soiree musicales. Madame Ratignolle plays it safe with her music and her emotions; Edna is ready to gamble with her emotions and her life.

Note that Edna’s death is foreshadowed by the Zampa duet played continuously throughout the summer by the Farival twins. The twins’ performances represent the shackles of domesticity: All the Grand Isle vacationers must pretend to enjoy these endlessly repeated recitals due to the social convention that requires children and their actions to be evaluated entirely with sentiment rather than with honesty. At the gathering where the twins perform the Zampa duet yet again, the parrot (who represents Edna) squawks loudly its phrase “Go away, for God’s sake!” as if voicing everyone’s silent protest, a scene that represents Edna’s later candor about doing what she truly feels like doing rather than what is expected of her. Note, too, that in this same scene, Mademoiselle Reisz is introduced, shown objecting to a crying baby. This scene implies that the necessary honesty of art is at odds with the sentimentality Edna’s culture attaches to motherhood.

Ultimately, Mademoiselle Reisz becomes her mentor in the world of art, providing the definition of an artist and warning Edna about beginning but not finishing a rebellion. Edna is not enough of an artist to make it her reason for living when all else seems lost — unlike Mademoiselle Reisz, who sacrificed everything for her music and has received little in return. She has even molded her body to meet the demands of her art, even though that means when she plays “her body settled into ungraceful curves . . . that gave it an appearance of deformity.” In contrast, Madame Ratignolle bends music to her purpose of “brightening the home and making it attractive.”

Just as Edna’s character is neither all good nor all bad, as an artist, she is neither a brilliant painter nor a talentless hack. One key difference between Edna and a serious visual artist is that Edna does not use her art to express her discontent. On her bad days, “when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium,” she is not inspired by the darkness of human experience and emotion, as the great painters are. She can paint only when she is happily alive and reveling in the sensuality of existence.

While she does not seek to become a great artist, focusing instead on the satisfaction she feels in the process of creation itself, she is devoted to spending her time as her own person rather than as a possession or employee of Leonce. She persists in her art despite Leonce’s criticism and Mademoiselle Reisz’s friendly but authentic derision. Mademoiselle Reisz warns her about the fate of those who seek to “soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice” but who lack the fortitude to maintain flight. Relating her words to Arobin later, Edna remarks “I’m not thinking of any extraordinary flights.” This response indicates Edna’s utter lack of ambition and foresight; distracted by thoughts of Robert, she does not heed the warning. Meanwhile, her focus on process over result almost allows her to have the best of both worlds: the freedom of Mademoiselle Reisz with the security of Madame Ratignolle. Part of the novel’s message, however, is that she cannot have it all.

Edna admits her lack of artistry to Leonce, agreeing with his assessment that she is not, in fact, a true painter. “It isn’t on account of painting that I let things go,” she tells him. She is not driven to rebel so that she can pursue art; she just has more time for it after she decides to place her desire for solitude before all other external demands. Most importantly, her atelier (studio or workshop) at the top of the house provides her with a private place within her home. Leonce has his own office retreat but doesn’t see the value of a private sanctuary for Edna. He wants her, instead, to spend more time in the main rooms of the house directing the domestic traffic.

Yet Edna breaks interesting ground in her little studio. There is rebellion in her choice of subject: Calling her children up to the atelier to sketch them was safe and predictable for a woman painter but making the quadroon the subject of a portrait — in Louisiana, in the 1890s — was a daring move, unprecedented for actual artists at the time. Then Edna brings up the maid, Ellen, for a portrait and has her loosen her hair from the protective housemaid’s cap — a vote for impractical sensuality over domestic practicality.

Such bold steps taken confidently impact her work positively: Her teacher-turned-broker, Laidpore, is able to sell her paintings and illustrations as her work “grows in force and individuality.” Her art enables her, in part, to support herself financially, to fund her independence. The sale of her paintings therefore helps to liberate her from Leonce: By refusing his bounty, she frees herself from his definition of her as one of his possessions.

Like her passion for Robert, art is an escapist venture for Edna because of her devotion to process over product. Ultimately, Edna does not pursue art as a means to achieve self-realization or provide insight about the world around her but merely to escape that world.