Student Question

How does The Awakening portray Mademoiselle Reisz as independent?

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Mademoiselle Reisz is independent in The Awakening most obviously because she is a musician, an artist. Her unmarried status, in the context of the story, is significant as well, but perhaps more important than these facts is the sensitivity she reveals to Edna's moods and the ability she has to commune with Edna in a way the more conventional members of society do not.

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Kate Chopin's story is in many respects a study in opposites. From the start, the reader senses a polarization between Edna and the conventional New Orleans society to which her husband and his friends belong. Mademoiselle Reisz, however, seems exceptional, not fitting in with the others and having a subliminal connection with Edna, therefore standing with her in opposition to Edna's husband and his circle.

Classical music is part of the Louisiana culture at the time the story takes place. At the start, the Farival twins are playing a duet from the opera Zampa, and they later play the overture to Von Suppe's Poet and Peasant as well. These works, however, now little remembered, are what we would generally refer to today as "light classical."

Mademoiselle Reisz, on the other hand, is a real artist who plays deeper, more serious music—Frederic Chopin, in particular. The facts of being unmarried and being a serious musician, an artist, establish her as an independent, unconventional person. She also is not always willing to play for others, not caring especially about their reactions to her.

The description of her contrasts sharply with the looks of the glamorous, wealthy people at Grand Isle:

She made an awkward, imperious little bow as she went in. She was a homely woman, with a small weazened face and body and eyes that glowed. She had absolutely no taste in dress, and wore a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets pinned to the side of her hair.

She asks not the others what they would like to hear her play but wants to know (from Robert) what Edna would like to hear. When she finishes playing, Mademoiselle Reisz tells Edna, "you are the only one worth playing for." The others, however, do praise her performance to the skies, but one wonders how sincere they are: they seem to be giving the usual superficial responses expected of them. Edna, on the other hand, has been moved to the depths of her soul, to the point where she "pressed the hand of the pianist convulsively."

Mademoiselle Reisz seems to be the only one who understands Edna's feelings for Robert. She also is the one who reveals to Edna what the actual dynamic within the Lebrun family is: that Victor, not Robert, is the "favorite son." In smaller matters, such as her distaste for going in the water for "a bath" as the others seem to take such pleasure in, Mademoiselle Reisz shows her separateness from the others and her general independence of mind.

Both Mademoiselle Reisz and Edna are the Other. Edna doesn't fit into Louisiana, upper-crust Creole society. She is an "American" (though she has some distant Creole ancestry), while the French-descended Louisianans at this time are still considered a kind of quasi-foreign group, despite Louisiana having been absorbed into the United States in the Purchase of 1803.

Mademoiselle Reisz is non-Creole, as Edna is. From her name, she is German, and possibly Jewish-German. These factors establish her as "not belonging" among this crowd in some sense, in the same way Edna does not "belong."

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