Alone Together

The expression which is the title of this essay may, at first glance, seem to make perfect sense. We use the phrase "alone together" all the time in our language. "We were alone together all day", "did your father leave you two alone together?", etc. But look at the phrase a little closer; break it apart, into "alone" and "together", two words which are complete opposites of each other. Does it really seem possible to be "alone" when in the presence of another, or for two (or more) people to be with each other, yet be "alone"? The expression "alone together" appears, when viewed apart from its accepted meaning as given by Americans, to be an oxymoron, a phrase which contradicts itself, plain and simple. That is why I have chosen it to be the title of my critical essay of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, because in one phrase, 2 words long, it has embodied the main conflict of that novel - the conflict between the main character's mind and emotions, in which she is almost always a solitary creature, and her external, real world, where she is almost never alone, meaning without human companionship.

Edna Pontellier, the main character of The Awakening, is a housewife. Her husband, L‚once, is an upper-middle-class businessman, whom Edna admits early in the book that she did not marry for love. They have two children, both boys, whom Edna loves dearly. This she has lived with, and put up with, and not even thought about, in the 6 years of their marriage. They live in a large house in a prestigious area of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and have a few servants to help them with the house and the boys. The family has many friends in the French Quarter, all equal in class and social standing. This is the background material of the story, which we do not discover until the middle of the novel.

Edna's transformation, or "awakening", from that of a housewife at the beck and call of her husband into a woman of her own mind and person, begins where her alone/together conflict begins - on the Grand Isle, where her husband and the families they are friends with own summer cottages. Most of these other families are Creole, a mixture of French and American. Edna is not, although she is married to one, so her children are Creole as well. Here, from the very beginning of the novel, she is separated from her friends and acquaintances, and family, by race and upbringing, although she seems hardly aware of it. They are aware, however. Madame Ratignolle says to her friend Robert Lebrun, after he has spent much of the day with Edna, "Let Mrs. Pontellier alone. She is not one of us; she is not like us."(Ch 8,  5&7) Robert, like Edna, is not Creole, or claims not to be (ch 8,  8), and perhaps this is part of the reason that Edna and Robert get along so well (because neither are of Creole descent). Chapter 6 describes, briefly, Edna's awakening to the world, for the first time. "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being..."(Ch 6,  4) Edna, from this time on, is aware of herself, as a person, as a human being, as an individual, not just as the wife of L‚once Pontellier. In becoming aware of herself, though, she becomes, for the first time, able to be alone, to be lonely. In saying "I am my own person", Edna inadvertently throws off all ties she has to anyone else, including her husband.

In talking with her friend, Madame Ratignolle, about her past, and her marriage to L‚once, Edna looks back on it all in a new light. She admits, to herself at least, that she never truly loved her husband, and that while she dearly loved her children, she would "sometimes forget them" as well.(Ch 7,  27&30) After looking back on her married years with the benefit of her new awakening, Edna feels as if she has drawn "a first breath of freedom". Later that week, while at the coast which the summer cottages border, Edna's swimming lessons take hold and she swims out as far as she dared, happy to be able to do something which most of her acquaintances took as natural. Her sole thought while she swam away from the shore was "She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before".(Ch 10,  7) Here, she is segregating herself from the others, in fact from all womankind, instead of the other way around. She purposely attempts to alienate herself from those she knows. She becomes frightened at being so far out from the shore, though, and swims back, still frightened, but finding no sympathy among her friends, including her husband. It is merely a case of going too far too soon, in both swimming AND in separating herself from those who she has been associated with for so long.

Up to this point, Edna has never really been alone, she has only tried to be, or to think of herself as such. During the same summer, she and Robert Lebrun have fallen in love. The only problem is that she is married; he is not. Near the end of the summer, Robert leaves for Mexico to pursue a business speculation that would hopefully be more profitable than his work in New Orleans. Edna had largely given up on her husband by that time (see chapter 11) - purposely disobeying him, leaving and returning at any hour (sometimes spending the time with Robert) - now, although she has not admitted it, she is totally infatuated with Robert. When he leaves, she is crushed - "Robert's going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything", her "entire existence was dulled".(Ch 16,  2) For the first time, she is experiencing loneliness; she is alone for the first time, and she does not like it. To make up for Robert's absence, she "induced [others] to talk about him"(ch 16,  2), the others being everyone else who was at the Grand Isle for the summer. Here is where the first conflict between being alone yet together, in regards to Edna, is given to the reader. To Edna, she is alone because Robert is gone. She feels loneliness, and yet she is far from alone, and admits it by inquiring the "others" about Robert. Even her husband is there with her, yet she still feels alone. The paradox of this episode is that it is because of the "others" that she misses Robert less, because she can hear about him from them, thereby making her feel less lonely, not because she has friends around her, but because those "friends" can help her to remember the only person she wants to be around.

After the summer is over, and all the families who were staying on the Grand Isle have moved back to their luxurious French Quarter houses, Edna continues to grow apart from her husband, at one point even removing her wedding ring and attempting to crush it under her boot heel.(Ch 17,  31) That same evening, her husband is dissatisfied with the meal their cook has made, and leaves to sup at "the club". Edna "finished her dinner alone", the author states; yet, she was in the presence of the cook and a servant or two. Edna has created an "in group" of humans who are people as well, while the others exist but hardly concern her - the servants are not people; she is trying to turn her husband into a non-person (seen in the attempted destruction of the ring which binds her to him); the friends she had met (save possibly for Mademoiselle Reisz) are not people. Robert and her children soon become the only humans she can be with and not be "alone" (therefore, they become the only "people" she relates with).

That autumn, L‚once is called to New York on business which will take several months to complete (he eventually returns in March of the next year). Edna's mother and father ask, and are granted, to take the boys to live with them in the country while L‚once is away. Through this, Edna becomes completely alone, yet it does not bother her - "But after all, a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone." Edna thinks and feels that she is alone - to her, she is alone - but there are still a few servants at the house, and she still has her friends from summer who live only blocks away that she can visit any time. Once again, she is alone without actually being alone. She does visit her friends occasionally; she especially makes trips to Mademoiselle Reisz's apartment because she (Mme Reisz) has been receiving letters from Robert in Mexico (he either neglects or refuses to write to Edna). Edna spends entire afternoons at Madame's house, reading the most current letter from Robert and listening to Madame play her piano (something Mme Reisz is famous for). Though she visits her friends, and goes on trips with them (including one very promising young man, Alc‚e Arobin, with whom Edna has a fleeting kindling, but it merely makes her love Robert all the more), but reading Robert's letters becomes the only action which she does with any regularity, as if that is all that can truly make her happy. Robert, and her children, who she visits once at her parent's house. She feels alive and together with them for the week she is there, yet, upon her return to the city, they "no longer echoed in her heart. She was again alone."(Ch 32,  last)

Also during the time while her husband and children are gone, that time when she is alone, Edna decides to move out of her husbands house and into a much smaller abode not far away, thus becoming exemplarily alone. She wishes to not be around things that her husband's money had bought - she will rent her new quarters with her own money, and furnish it only with items which she has purchased of her own accord. Before, she was deserted by her husband and children. Now, she is "deserting" them by means of removing everything to remind her of them. She writes to L‚once about her intentions, but does not care about what he has to say about the matter. She has become her own woman, completely, which may have been her intention since her "awakening" that summer. But in doing so, she has alienated herself from all those around her, like she had done earlier during the evening swim where she desired to go further than any woman had ever gone. Unlike that evening, however, she has gradually moved into this state of thought, and is neither unhappy nor frightened by what may come of it, as she had feared being out so far from the shore before.

On the eve of her moving into her new home, Edna decides to hold a small dinner party to "celebrate" - to celebrate her pending loneliness by being together with a crowd of her friends.(Ch 30) It is an intimate yet jolly affair for all, except for Edna who, through her attire and attitude, is still separated from the others - "There was something in her attitude, in her whole appearance...which suggested the regal woman...who looks on, who stands alone."(Ch 30,  17) Whether Edna did it intentionally or not, she has once again excluded herself from those she is with, although in separating herself from them, is she truly "with" them? She is together - with her friends - but alone - in "her attitude, in her whole appearance". She obviously wanted to be with these people on this particular night - there are easier and cheaper ways of being alone than having a dinner party with your friends - but ended up separated from them anyway, as had happened before. This leads back to the "in group" - Robert and her children - who are the only ones she can be with and not be "alone"; neither he nor her children are there, so she must be alone (even though she has 10 of her "friends" there with her). That night and thereafter, Edna stays at her new house, alone save for one servant. It isn't until a week after the dinner that Edna visits her children at her parent's house, and it is after that that Robert returns from Mexico. Edna accidentally meets him on his second day back in the States - she, having gone in search of Mme Reisz at her apartment but finding her not at home, is alone in Mme Reisz's apartment waiting for her when Robert comes to the door, also looking for Mme Reisz. They leave, not having encountered Mme Reisz, and Edna entreats Robert to have dinner with her: "You must stay and dine with me, Robert. You see, I am all alone, and it is so long since I have seen you."(Ch 33,  42) In the second sentence, Edna admits that she has been alone in her new house (despite visits from her woman friends around town, several of which she had had that very day(Ch 33,  4-15)), and, through her phrasing, has implied that her loneliness will be only temporary, as if having Robert with her will cease her loneliness; it is, in fact, her reason for inviting Robert over - 'have dinner with me because I am alone' - and this gives evidence that she is not alone when she is with Robert, or at least does not feel alone, as she does with most other people (such as at her dinner party). Their after-dinner chat is rudely interrupted by Alc‚e Arobin, at which point Robert leaves for the evening, and soon thereafter Edna dismisses Alc‚e with a "good night". Edna is left "alone", dreaming of Robert(Ch 34). I feel that it is important to note that the author does not at this time say "she was alone again" like the author was wont to do in previous sections where Edna was by herself in her house (with, of course, the servants) - she lies awake thinking of Robert, remembering their entire afternoon moment by moment, so, in contrast to much of the rest of the novel, she is alone (save for a servant), yet she does not appear to feel as if she is alone because she has Robert's memory fresh in her mind (whereas before, she was usually with people, yet felt "alone"). She is truly "alone together", with Robert. Unfortunately for Edna, Robert does not return to see her the next day, nor the next, and for some time she neither sees nor hears of him. Until one afternoon when they happen to meet (again by accident) at a small cantina. Robert again goes home with her, where, by the dark glow of candlelight, they voice the love they have for each other. But Robert is practical, and a gentleman - he tells her that the reason he did not write while he was in Mexico and the reason why he had not sought her out on his return was, of course, because she was married. Edna dismisses his reservations, saying "I am no longer one of Mr Pontellier's possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose."(Ch 36, 41) It is then that she is called to visit Madame Ratignolle, to be with her during the delivery of her child (I believe - the actual event that the reader and Edna are witness to is not revealed); but before Edna leaves, she expresses her undying love of him, and promises that they shall be "everything to each other."(Ch 36, 48) He appeals her not to go, to stay with him, but she had promised Madame Ratignolle, and leaves saying she'll be back as soon as she can, and for him to wait for her. Edna will never have to be alone again, with Robert there with her! After the awful spectacle at the Ratignolle's home, Edna returns to her "pigeon-house" (her nickname for the house she moved into after leaving L‚once's house) dreaming of being with her loved one (Robert). She has even put her children forcibly out of mind in order to devote her entire mental capacity to him. When she returns, he is not there. In his stead is a note which says merely: "I love you. Good-by - because I love you." Edna's servant is even absent that night. Edna is completely and totally alone, and shall always be alone, for Robert has left her. No longer do even her children bring her any delight - they have become "like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered her and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days." Edna realizes that she will eventually forget Robert when someone else comes into her life, but she does not want that - "There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert". In the days that follow, Edna returns to Grand Isle, to the very beach where she had at last learned to swim not 9 months before, and again dares herself to see how far from the shore she can swim, except this time she has no intention of ever turning around, and so she drowns in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, at the age of 29, alone except for the sound of "her father's voice and her sister Margaret's", a hum of bees, and the "musky odor of pinks [in] the air."(Ch 39) Edna Pontellier is a solitary woman. Throughout most of the novel, she is mentally alone or separated, when with other people, or, much less often, is physically alone, with no one else around her. Before the events of the novel take place, she has been complaisant towards her situation, until the summer with which the novel begins, where she "awakens"(Ch 6) to the reality of her condition and realizes "her position in the universe as a human being..."(Ch 6,  4) Before, she was alone, and she neither knew nor cared. Now, after her awakening, she is much more conscious of her aloneness, and it begins to affect her. She flees that which she does not feel "together" with - her husband, her friends (whom she sees less often after that summer), even, finally, her children, whom she first puts out of mind (when she is thinking of Robert) and then turns them into creatures who would oppress her into a life of slavery (as all children do to their parents). When Robert, her only true love, leaves her, she is left completely and totally alone, and rather than eventually forget about the times she had with him, she drowns herself to keep his memories with her always. It was her awakening which gave her her fear of being alone, and it is that fear which ultimately kills her. As for being "alone", when she killed herself she still had her husband, her children, and her friends, with all the time in the world to make new ones. Physically, she was far from being alone; mentally, she was in total solitude on a planet full of nothing. Alone, yet together (with husband and children and friends). It is this conflict in her mind which the entire novel feeds off of. A conflict which she creates (and which society had tried to keep from her by saying "the wife's place is in the home"), and which I believe Kate Chopin hoped other women would create in themselves, bringing womanhood to its "awakening" in the oppression of the early 1900's.

Tyler Jones, November 30, 1992