When Edna reaches Madame Ratignolle’s, she finds her friend exhausted and overwrought in her labor pains. Dr. Mandelet and a midwife also attend the birth. Edna regrets attending; the birth is a harrowing scene. Edna’s own childbirth experiences do not provide useful perspective, because she was drugged with chloroform for the pain. After the birth is over and she prepares to leave, Madame Ratignolle whispers dramatically to her “Think of the children, Edna . . . Remember them!”
Madame Ratignolle plays a provocative role in this chapter. She asked for Edna’s company during her labor and delivery only as source a solace to herself. However, the incredible pain and drama of childbirth serves as a lesson to Edna, showing her what she herself actually went through — and accomplished — during her own birth experiences, which were fogged by the use of chloroform as an anesthetic. Recalling her reaction to her own deliveries, she remembers being nonplussed by the boys’ presence. She saw them only as an addition to “the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go” — there is nothing special or endearing to her about her babies, indicating that she is not maternal by nature.
Madame Ratignolle’s parting words to Edna remind Edna not only that she went through the same ordeal herself while bringing Raoul and Etienne into the world but also that by virtue of being their mother, she is still responsible for their well-being. To this point, Edna had not considered the effects of her actions on her children, how leaving their father for another man might negatively affect their lives. She has been utterly focused on experience over consequence. The boys’ temporary absence has granted Edna the latitude that comes with their being out of sight and out of mind. Madame Ratignolle’s insistent words, delivered with such impact in her hour of trial and accomplishment, compel Edna to rethink her devotion to fulfilling all her whims at the expense of others.
Chopin uses a provocative image in connection with Madame Ratignolle, as well: As she sits in the salon, her hair “lay in a long braid on the sofa pillow, coiled like a golden serpent.” Not only is the image a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, whose words to Eve caused her and all subsequent women to endure great suffering in childbirth, but it also foreshadows Edna’s death. In the final chapter, the waves “coiled like serpents” around Edna’s legs as she prepares for her fatal swim. The serpent braid represents knowledge and the loss of innocence — Madame Ratignolle forces Edna to witness the great suffering of childbirth and reckon with the fate of her own children, who will be subjected to the same stigma that will mark Edna if she follows her current course of action. Additionally, her children have a specific need for her in their lives, as illustrated in Chapter 14, when Etienne was not soothed by Madame Ratignolle, but needed his mother’s presence before he could go to sleep. While Edna may not be the model mother in her husband’s or society’s opinion, her children have an attachment to her.
Griffe person with one mulatto parent and one black parent.
coupe a closed carriage seating two passengers, with a seat outside for the driver.