Edna and Ada

Something I wrote long ago. 

“There is a silence where hath been no sound 

There is a silence where no sound may be, 

In the cold grave–under the deep, deep sea.” –Thomas Hood 

Such a silent, watery grave, far from the human world is chosen by both Edna of _The Awakening_ and Ada of _The Piano_, yet while the former does indeed drown the later chooses life. In amazement Ada speaks for only the second time in the entire movie and says, “What a death! What a chance! What a surprise! My will has chosen life! Still, it has had me spooked, and many others besides.” Her will has chosen life. This idea of a will is central to both these ladies, yet while similarities between their situations and conflicts can be drawn, the reasoning behind Ada’s choice of life and Edna’s choice of death lie embedded in their individual wills and the way in which four main forces act upon them. These forces–their children, their husbands and lovers, their relationships to art and the societies in which they live–act either to highlight aspects of their wills or to alter some facet of them. 

Three children are used as such, although in the case of Edna, Raoul and Etienne are interchangeable and faceless objects. They only serve to show us Edna, as she treats them as objects, often forgetting them for weeks at a time. Although after visiting with them “it was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks. All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. But by the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone” (Chopin 95). Edna loves her children but they are not a part of her. She even says, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (47). 

This idea of the refusal to sacrifice the one’s self for your children can also be applied to Ada. Only in the beginning Flora is an extension of her mother. Flora is sheltered and entertained. Ada tells her stories, teaches, or simply speaks with her and Flora is the joyful dancer when Ada plays the piano. Flora is independent creature. Unlike Edna’s children who are only seen briefly, Flora is a force that acts upon her mother. Flora is constantly left outside when Ada bargains and later loves George Baines, so it is Flora who chooses Alisdair Stewart. She plays nicely with her dolls or not so nicely with the Maori children and Flynn. She tries to replace for the lost attentions of her mother with her step-father, but she chooses badly as we see in the final scenes. 

In either woman’s case it is the acknowledgment that their children are not the focus of their lives as they are too selfish for that. What then is the focus of these woman’s wills? For Edna it varies, as “with a writhing motion she settled herself more securely the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted” (Chopin 31). While at the next moment she says that “there are periods of despondency and suffering which take possession of me” (112). Edna attempts to focus her will by painting but this effort reaps little reward or release for her emotions. She turns to Mademoiselle Reisz. “There was nothing which so quieted the turmoil of Edna’s senses as a visit to Mademoiselle Reisz. It was then, in the presence of that personality which was offensive to her, that woman, by her divine art, seemed to reach Edna’s spirit and set it free” (78). This release that Edna finds when listening to the piano music is weak because it is second hand. If her painting were truly an extension of herself or she was creating the sound we would see these as aspects of her self instead of garments she assumes and allows to herself to occupy. Ada, on the other hand, plays the piano as an extension of herself. It is her voice as Ada speaks through her music. Ada differs from Edna, who shows us her superfluousness when she says that one day, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think–try to determine what character of a woman I am; for candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it” (Chopin 82). For the mute Ada, however, as Flora iterates, “actually, to tell you the whole truth–Mother says most people speak rubbish and its not worth the listen.” 

Ada speaks through her piano, hence it is important to recognize three things. Only three times is the piano played by someone other than Ada. Twice by Flora and once my the Maori men, symbolizing its uniqueness and importance to Ada. It is also interesting to note that it’s a Broadwood which is considered the elite British piano of that period. When we hear the church piano during the holiday pageant a contrast is made between Nessie’s ordinary playing on an ordinary piano and that of a fine instrument and it artist. The second interesting fact is that to make a voyage from Scotland to New Zealand at that time would mean months aboard a ship. These months the piano would have been stored below deck with the rest of Ada’s dowry. Thus, when Stewart leaves the piano on the beach it is truly a slap in the face for Ada as now she must abandon her piano to the elements. As she looks down from the high cliff to the piano on the beach, Ada is forced into silence. We see her distress even more when she stares out the window into the rain. As her passion is not a second hand passion it is a part of her and not, as in Edna’s case, passing fancies. 

The third force is that of societies in which these women live. Ada has moved from the harsh climate of Scotland to the damp jungle of New Zealand. She has left the stifling Victorian society and become immersed in a wild, more sensual one. Although many of the settlers here try to maintain a semblance of proper, civilized life with the constant need to keep clean of mud and other impurities it is a difficult battle. Stewart has been doing as such since his arrival. Tense relations with the Maori and constant drive to acquire more land continue to alienate him from every one except his Aunt Morag and Baines, as he is virtually indifferent to Stewart. Hence the new world Ada enters is part old-world and part hedonistic. 

Edna, however has no such luck. She was born into the Southern society and married into the Creoles of New Orleans. Both of which contain strict guidelines for how one should act. Although the Creole culture has more sensual overtones than that which Edna was born into, there are still things one does not ask or do. This angel in the house is best illustrated by Madame Ratignolle, who wants to be the perfect, selfless mother and wife. When Edna attempts to truly leave this confining role she is leaving New Orleans Society, for this is a society that demands that one fulfill their social role. Edna is constantly out on her customary day to receive visitors and even goes so far as to close up the house so that she may move to a smaller more private affair. “It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly hat she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Chopin 57). 

Which brings us to Mr. Pontellier’s as a force in Edna’s life. He does not know or understand his wife. He objectifies her–exacting obedience and grief when he desires it. “Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house examining its various appointments and details, to see that nothing was amiss. He greatly valued his possessions, chiefly because they were his, and derived genuine pleasure from contemplating a painting, a statuette, a rare lace curtain–no matter what–after he had bought it a and placed it among his household goods” (Chopin 50). As Edna “was not accustomed to an outward and spoken expression of affection, either in herself or in others” (17), this objectification is never made clear to her until Robert speaks of her as another man’s property to which she replies, “You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer on of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both” (118). 

This brings us to the second man in Edna’s life, Robert. Edna falls in love with this man, yet we never see them interact. The scenes between them are almost completely silent. No superfluous words are used. Hence when Robert suddenly leaves with no explanation Edna is suddenly adrift in her emotions. She turns to her painting and to Arobin and “there was dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her, because it was not love which had held this cup of life to her lips” (84). Edna is soft and yielding instigates little with Robert just places herself in proximity, and, with Arobin, she simply accepts his advances. She paints, visits Madame at feels and allows herself to swoon. Her will is soft: it is only with her awakening that she tries to take control and express herself. Yet for Edna it is too late. Alone, she is not capable to reach the same passionate state that Mademoiselle Reisz takes her. Robert has left, obeying the social rules thus, ascertaining her status as a mere object. Lastly, Edna admits that “she had said over and over to herself: ‘To-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier…” (115). 

Edna’s will moves her from here to there. Her freedom is capricious, going from tree to tree such like Flora’s game, but not Ada’s. Ada falls in love with Baines and not her husband. She cannot substitute one for the other as easily as Edna, although Ada does try, for Baines never thinks of Ada as an object. On the beach when Stewart asks him what he thinks he replies, “She looks tired.” Stewart’s opinion is that she’s stunted. One looks on at her emotional state, the other is only considering her physical state. He refuses to transport the piano, as he fails to recognize it as part of Ada. On the two occasions when he does hear her play he is transfixed, but unable to comprehend what she is saying through the music. Stewart is constantly listening for an actual human voice from Ada while Baines realizes upon the visit he makes with Ada and Flora to the piano on the beach the importance of the piano and its relationship with Ada. Baines stares between Ada at the piano and Flora and is content to let the two stay until dusk. He recovers the piano to protect it from the elements, and perhaps the best symbol of this is found in the parting shot of the beach in which Ada walks up the shore followed by Flora and then by Baines. All three trails of footprints become one. 

There are other clues that lead Baines to his understanding and decision to trade with Stewart for the piano. Namely the conversation at Morag’s concerning the kitchen table, but while he understands Ada, she does not understand him. Upon being told she must give Baines lessons she argues that “Its her piano and she won’t have him touch it. He’s an oaf. He can’t read. He’s ignorant The piano is mine. Its mine!” But Baines never does touch the piano other than to caress it. He understands it is her voice and never plays it. Baines not only understands Ada, but he is outside of the settler society to a great degree. The unfinished tattoos on his face and his knowledge of the Maori language give him a more wild or native personality. Add to this his comfortable yet non-Scottish hut which is surrounded by the rich jungle life unlike Stewart’s barren and charred settlement nad Baines is not governed by this society. 

Because Baines tries to gain Ada’s physical love and fails he gives the piano back. What he does not realize is that each time he advanced Ada held still for a moment, until her will caused her to move. Whether it was lying down together or merely when he touches her arms while she is playing, Ada for a moment relaxes. Ada is afraid of her will, hence her pulling away from Baines. When the piano is then at Stewart’s home Ada can no longer play unless she is moved by thoughts of Baines. Whether it be in dreams or upon hearing the Baines is leaving, Ada’s voice is one of passion and heartache. While Flora plays for Stewart, Ada wanders outside and stares through the trees towards Baines, and later when playing Ada turns around, half expecting someone to be there. But Baines is no longer there, so Ada goes to him. Unlike Edna, however, who is swayed by the demands of Madame Ratignolle, Ada does not leave Baines. Later, when the knowing Stewart has her promise she will not try to reach Baines she sends him a piano key. “It has lost its voice–it can’t sing,” comments one Maori–Ada without Baines. 

Ada’s will is so strong that it literally supports and protects her. It is her will not to speak, so she does not utter a sound. Not when Stewart cuts off her finger, nor when she visits Baines. The only sound is her soft murmuring moans. Ada is always dressed strongly as well. In heavy dark wools her tiny frame is anchored to the ground. Edna is chatty and always wearing something light and fluffy. If she is not in a peignoir, then it is a soft, rich dress. Edna either just doesn’t know what she need to be complete. Her will is tempramental and changable. Ada needs her piano, so much that she agrees to Baines’s deal, yet Ada is afraid of her will. The will that sacrificed her voice for Baines. By not uttering an answer to Stewart’s demand Ada’s voice was silenced. Her will chose another over herself. Edna is not capable of such a choice, but can we really blame her, for look at the materialistic men she has to work with. 

For Edna, “there came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable” (Chopin 89). Edna drowns because her will is too weak to sustain her. To weak to decide or chose Robert or any passion. She is without a voice and so chooses death. For Ada, however, her sacrifice and attempted drowning/baptismal is spoken of as: “What a death! What a chance! What a surprise! My will has chosen life!” Although Ada’s will is often over-powering it is strong and willing to go on. These two woman both drown in that cold grave, but while Edna leaves everything Ada is reborn.

Notice a typo or other issue? Feel free to let me know.