Ten guests show up for Edna’s dinner party: Arobin, Mademoiselle Reisz, Victor Lebrun, Mrs. Highcamp, Monsieur Ratignolle, and a few others. Edna announces that it is her twenty-ninth birthday. Despite the party’s success, she longs for Robert. When Victor later begins to drunkenly sing the song Robert sang to Edna, “Si tu savais,” she is so upset she accidentally breaks her wineglass and then puts her hand over Victor’s mouth to make him stop singing. The party breaks up soon after.
Chapter 31 begins with Arobin helping Edna lock up the mansion and walking her to the pigeon house. She is overwrought and miserable, missing Robert and feeling hopeless. Once inside, Arobin presses his advantage, and they become lovers that night.
The depiction of Edna at her party as “the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” grants her simultaneously command and loneliness, just as one frequently accompanies the other in life. Contrast this queenly image with Chapter 5’s description of Madame Ratignolle as having “the grace and majesty which queens . . . possess.” Her power is based on nurturing others; Edna’s power comes from dedication to pleasing herself. As a woman who is taking charge of her life’s direction and steering it in an unpopular direction, she is isolating herself from mainstream society — and from those individuals who cannot admit they would like to make the same move.
Yet for all her strength, all the progress she has made in discovering her true self, she is nonetheless unhappy without Robert at her side. Chopin uses significant word choices in describing Edna’s longing, however: “she felt the old ennui . . . the hopelessness which . . . came upon her like an obsession.” Is her obsession with Robert himself or with the high drama and emotional intrigue that accompanies her inappropriate love for him?
One of her guest, Gouvernail, makes a reference to desire as “a graven image,” as a thing in itself to be worshipped, when he quotes the first two lines from Swinburne’s “The Cameo” in response to Victor’s splendid appearance at the dinner table. With their combined histories of courting the unattainable, Edna and Robert have spent years desiring for the sake of desiring, erecting emotional facades. Their current obsession with each other, more substantial than any other previously experienced, is more dangerous for the physical passion Edna brings to it. The ominous Swinburne line “Painted with red blood on a ground of gold” casts the entire venture of love as bound for failure and catastrophe, although it may be a grand, golden disaster.
Desire is an ancient and sometimes brutal urge, as indicated in Swinburne’s phrase “graven image,” which evokes images of harsh primal gods. The strength of desire is evident when Edna feels Victor’s kiss on her palm as a “pleasing sting” — she is not immune to the charms of her beloved’s brother, as harsh a truth as that may be. Victor appeals to her great sensuality just as Arobin does. At this dinner he plays the role of the extreme sensualist, drawing out the same quality in Edna; recall her playful response to his racy stories in Chapter 20, to which she meant to respond with disapproval.
Mademoiselle Reisz plays a role that is a counterpart to Doctor Mandelet’s. While at the dinner with Leonce, the Colonel and Edna, the doctor sought to instruct Edna with his parable of a married woman’s wandering heart; he could discern in her behavior the telltale signs. Mademoiselle Reisz, too, knows human nature well and probably intuits the brewing affair between Edna and Arobin. As she leaves the party, she warns Edna to “behave well.” Her advice is not heeded, however, as Edna’s disheartenment over Robert’s absence from her life makes her vulnerable to Arobin’s now-serious advances.
Always a persuasive charmer, Arobin accelerates his wooing of Edna by having her little house filled with flowers while they are at the dinner. On this night, crushed by Victor’s rendition of the song Robert sang to her once, the song that underscores his unattainability then and his absence now, Edna is in need of an understanding friend. With Arobin stroking her hair, Edna feels comforted and “could have fallen quietly asleep there if he had continued to pass his hand over her hair.” Yet he is not content to provide only solace but presses his advantage until “she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties.” She loves Robert but he has left her for Mexico and here is Arobin with his incessant charm and gentle caress. No wonder Edna is greatly conflicted at this moment, her voice “uneven” as she asks whether he is leaving. In her first night at the pigeon house, she consummates her flirtation with Arobin.
souffrante suffering or ill; here, a reference to the late stage of pregnancy.
shallow-pate a person lacking depth or intelligence.
alacrity eager willingness or readiness, often manifested by quick, lively action.
lorgnette a pair of eyeglasses attached to a handle.
nom de guerre a pseudonym.
mets main dish or main course.
entre-mets a dish served between the main courses or as a side dish.
pompano any of various edible, marine North American and West Indian jack fishes.
jessamine any of various tropical and subtropical plants of the olive family, with fragrant flowers of yellow, red, or white, used in perfumes or for scenting tea. Typically spelled jasmine.
Bonne nuit, ma reine, soyez sage Good night, my queen, behave well.
Ce que tes yeux me disent What your eyes are saying to me.
parterre an ornamental garden area in which the flower beds and path form a pattern.
matting a woven fabric of fiber, as straw or hemp, for mats, floor covering, wrapping, and so on.