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The interpretation of Edna Pontellier’s suicide at the end of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening needs a two-fold approach: on the one hand Edna fails life because she cannot find a for her bearable way to go on with her life - to “resolve the conflict between the urge toward self-realization and the constricting conventions of society”1 ; on the other hand, however, “the ultimate realization that she has awakened to is that the only way she can save herself is to give up her life (...); she surrenders her life in order to save herself,”2 which means that the suicide is not a failure at all because for all that she is still able to save her essential inner-self.
By committing suicide Edna does exactly what she already has predicted earlier: “I would give up the unessential (...) I would give up my life (...) but I wouldn’t give myself.”3 Even though she says these words in connection with her children, they give a major reason why Edna chooses death. They show that her physical life is something unessential to her.
She actually has to choose what to give up in the situation she finds herself in by the end of the novel: She lives in a society that dictates her how and what to be, namely a so called mother- woman, described as following:
The mother - women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.4
Edna does not love her husband Leonce Pontellier. To him, she is more like a piece of property which has to be kept undamaged and beautiful to fulfil its task of being a status symbol to him. And he does look after his property: “ ‘You are burnt beyond recognition’, he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.”5
In the Creole society sexual contact outside of marriage is not only frowned on but a taboo which makes people who are discovered considered criminals. In contrast to men, women play a submissive role, their personal independence is linked with discomfort and exclusion. Despite all these limiting “restrictions that nature and man have conspired to impose upon her”6 she has dared and managed to free herself. Physically she has managed this step by moving out of her husband’s house leaving behind both her two children Raoul and Etienne and all the pleasant comforts living with Leonce offered her. The affair she has with Alcee Arobin gives her the sexual satisfaction she has never achieved before. But this is not all she wants from a man. She does not love Alcee, but feels guilty towards the man she really does love and whom she feels like betraying: Robert Lebrun.
With him she dreams of sailing away to live an unconventional, independent life. But although Robert shows a certain interest in Edna as a person and seems to understand her he reacts by leaving, almost escaping to Mexico after Adele Ratignolle says:
She is not one of us; she is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously. (...) If your attention to any married women here were ever offered with any intention of being convincing, you would not be the gentleman we all know you to be, and you would be unfit to associate with the wives and daughters of the people who trust in you.7
He is not strong enough to discard the restrictions of his society, declare his love to Edna and take the resulting responsibilities. Therefore he might be considered a victim of the Creole society himself. Be that as it may, when he returns from Mexico, he turns out to be nothing like Edna has imagined him but just as conventional as anybody else. He reacts shocked on her suggestion to live together but not as man and wife and he does not understand: “His face grew a little white. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.”8 He does want to be together with Edna despite the hurdle that she is still married to Leonce, but he never thought of anything else but marrying Edna himself. So Edna’s fantasy bubble of an independent life with an unconventional husband bursts.
In this situation Edna has to discover that she has only a limited number of options to go on with her life: she could go back to her husband Leonce who would probably take her back dismissing her behavior as a morbid condition. This, however, would mean to give up all the independence she has achieved and continue her life as it was before her awakening: being an obedient, husband-worshipping, silent mother-woman. Alcee is totally out of question: he was not much more than a pleasant pastime but certainly not an option to spend a life with. Another discussible option would be to come together with Robert.
This would mean a divorce, which was both not a popular and easy thing to do in those days and it would result in a decline of social position for both of them. Marie Fletcher describes the problem as follows:
Sexually awakened as she is, she cannot bear to live on as the wife of Leonce Pontellier; Robert Lebrun does not really want her; and with Alcee Arobin there is no feeling of companionship, only sexual satisfaction about which she has a sense of guilt because of her feeling that she has betrayed Robert.9
Totally different would be to adapt the life of Mlle Reisz. She has devoted her life to being an artist. She is independent and unmarried.
These are the prospects Edna faces. So why does she not choose any of these but rather kills herself? Going back to Leonce or to choose a life at Robert’s side would mean to step backwards in her development. She would depend on a man again. At this point in her life she has simply gone too far in her awakening to take any steps backwards. Expressed is this refusal in context to her resistance to Leonce: “She had resolved never to take another step backward.”10 Stepping backward would actually mean to give up herself because she would deny all she feels, what she believes in and her self-consciousness - her inner-self. And she has pointed out that that is not an option at all to her.
Furthermore, Edna is not strong enough to live a life like Mlle. Reisz, the “pianist of small reputation who is pitifully estranged from all others in her society”11 because she is aware of the fact that she could not stand the connected loneliness. Mlle Reisz lives at the margin of society, is not really popular but only tolerated, lives alone in a small flat without any comforts. Edna knows she could never live without men’s company.
They have been playing a major role in her thoughts since her childhood: a “sad-eyed cavalry officer”, an “engaged young man” and a “tragedian”12.
Over and above that, she did appreciate the modest wealth and comfort the marriage with Leonce provided her with. She could not bear to live a life without means. Moreover, in Mlle Reisz’s opinion
[t]o be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts - absolute gifts - which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul13
and she doubts that Edna is such a courageous soul.
As Lee R. Edwards points out:
Isolation and sexual abstinence is the only viable alternative, but Edna cannot endure a solitary life. She is not strong enough to live under the austere tutelage of Mlle Reisz.14
None of the offered options is bearable for Edna , therefore she makes true what she predicted and gives up what is unessential to her - her life.
Shortly before her suicide Edna witnesses Adele Ratignolle giving birth. She is reminded of her own birth - experience when she sees how the other woman suffers.
Despite the upcoming horror of the scene she stays “with an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the way of Nature”15 and finally comes to a conclusion:
Edna is trapped in the awareness that succumbing to sexual desire moves one from the private realm of feeling to the public realm of production and that the children can demand the mother’s life, even if they cannot demand the woman’s soul.16
The children - her own children - try to possess their mothers - her - wholly. They are “like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered her and sought to drag her into soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.”17 And she does it: she saves her soul so that her children cannot get hold of it.
The story of the novel takes place within 9 months. By the end it is not only time for Adele to give birth but also for Edna’s own rebirth. She frees herself from her old self : “she cast the unpleasant, pricking garment from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air”18 and finally accomplishes her rebirth by giving herself to the sea “like some new - born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”19
The meaning of the sea in the novel has to be examined to show how Edna is finally able to save her essential inner-self despite the fact that she is not able to find a way to go on with her life. In general, water is a symbol for spiritual rebirth, cleaning ones body and soul, renewing and awakening.20 For the novel there are, in fact, two stages of importance for the sea as a symbol.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude (...). The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.21
These words appear at two places in the novel: both in the beginning (p. 13) and in the very end (p. 115). Within these two appearances the meaning of the sea gains importance for Edna. In the beginning the sea is part of Edna’s awakening. Not only does she - at the age of 28 - finally learn to swim but also comes the idea to her mind that there might be something different in life than what she has experienced so far. The sea gives her the opportunity to actually feel free for the first time in her life. She experiences “a fusion of body and soul.”22 Edna realizes even at that early stage in her awakening that she is on a unique way of experience. She wants “ to swim far out, where no woman ha[s] swum before.”23
The sea also symbolizes how Edna’s body awakens: the sea is “seductive” and “enfolding the body.” She lives this sexual awakening later with Alcee. The sea also functions as an escape for Edna: “it’s a maternal realm outside culture, a solitary world beyond patriarchal discourse that cannot exist within the culture Edna knows.”24 In the sea she can isolate herself from the constricting Creole society. Further going on in the here-beginning process of her awakening she achieves her personal independence, liberates herself from society’s restrictions and discovers her inner-self which from that point on she is not willing to give up again.
In the end, however, this image of liberation is brought to its climax: the sea is used to fulfill the ultimate liberation: not only to liberate but to escape from the society that is not yet ready for the kind of woman Edna has developed into. The sea is now her instrument to achieve this ultimate realization of her liberation-process: to give up the unessential - her life. This final act enables her to preserve the essential part of herself: her personality, her inner-self, that now would never be submissive to others. She gives herself to the element that has awakened her, “she surrenders her life in order to save herself”25, i.e. she surrenders her body and her existence on earth and saves the essential - her soul.
Chopin, Kate, The Awakening, New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1993. Secondary Literature:
A.L.R. - American Literary Realism 1870 - 1910, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Vol. 15, Nr. 3, 1993.
Culley, Margo, ed., The Awakening, Kate Chopin, 2nd ed., New York, Norton & Company, 1994.
Dawson, Hugh J., “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Dissenting Opinion”, A.L.R., p. 7/8
Edwards, Lee R., “Sexuality, Maternity and Selfhood”, Culley, p. 283 - 285.
Fletcher, Marie, “The Southern Woman in Fiction”, Culley, p. 193 - 195.
Giorcelli, Christina, “Edna’s Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging”, Martin, p.109 - 148.
Martin, Wendy, ed., New Essays on The Awakening, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
May, John R., “Local Color in The Awakening”, Culley, p. 211 - 217.
Schulz, Dieter, “Notes Toward a fin -de-siècle Reading of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening”, A.L.R., p. 69 - 76.
Schweikle, Günther and Irmgard, ed., Metzler - Literatur - Lexikon: Begriffe und Definitionen, 2nd ed., Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990.
Walker, Nancy A.: The Disobedient Writer-Woman and Narrative Tradition, 1st edition, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1995.
Works read but not quoted:
Cutter, Martha J., “Unruly Tongue - Identity and Voice in American Women’s Writing 1850 - 1930” , Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Ewell, Barbara C., “ Kate Chopin”, New York: Ungar, 1986.
Toth, Emily, “Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
1 Dieter Schulz, “Notes Toward a fin -de-siècle Reading of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening,” in: A.L.R.,Vol. 25, Nr.3, 1993, p. 69
2 John R. May, “Local Color in The Awakening,” The Awakening, Kate Chopin, ed. Margo Culley, (New York: Norton & Company,1994), p. 216
3 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, (New York: Dover Publication Inc., 1993), p. 47
4 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p.8
5 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 2
6 John R. May, p. 216
7 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 19
8 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 108
9 Marie Fletcher, The Southern Woman in Fiction, p. 194
10 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 57
11 Hugh J. Dawson, „Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Dissenting Opinion“, in: A.L.R., Vol. 26, Nr. 2, 1994, p. 7/8
12 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 18
13 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 63
14 Lee R. Edwards, “Sexuality, Maternity and Selfhood”, Culley, p. 284
15 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 110
16 Lee R. Edwards, p. 285
17 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 115
18 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 115
19 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 115
20 Metzler - Literatur -Lexikon: Begriffe und Definitionen, G. und I. Schweikle (ed.), 2nd ed., Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990
21 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 13, p. 115
22 Christina Giorcelli, “Edna’s Wisdom: A Transitional and Numious Merging,” in: Wendy Martin (ed.), New Essays on The Awakening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 119
23 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 27
24 Nancy A. Walker, The Disobidient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition (Austin: University of Texas press, 1995), p. 25
25 Kate Chopin, The Awakening, p. 47
- Quote paper
- Anna Kimmerle (Author), 2001, Chopin, Kate - The Awakening - Edna`s suicide, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/105190