|Reconciling Edna’s Suicide and
the Criticism Surrounding
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
By: Mary Bird
College Common Room: Volume 3, Number 1
October 8, 1999
is extensive critical controversy surrounding the ending of Kate Chopin’s
novel The Awakening. One group of critics focuses on the novel as
a feminist text. They argue that Edna Pontellier’s awakening is one
of mental clarity, and her suicide is a triumphant act. By committing
suicide Edna is finally freeing herself from social constraints and possession.
Her suicide is an act of liberation, therefore Edna is the ultimate feminist.
The opposing group of critics read The Awakening as a naturalist text.
They believe Edna’s awakening to be a decline into insanity. Instead
of triumphing against the society and men who oppress her, Edna gives herself
up to the ocean in a symbolic return to the womb, allowing the ocean to
possess her. While there is evidence to support both arguments, that
is also their flaw--both arguments can be laid out in detail and substantially
supported, yet they are presented as mutually exclusive. Chopin intentionally
leaves the reader with this ambiguity. By trying to resolve it, we
miss the point of the novel. For purposes of comparison, I will use
the article “Kate Chopin and the American Realists” by Per Seyersted as
a basis for the argument of the feminist perspective, and the article “Feminist
or Naturalist” by Nancy Walker as a basis for the argument of the naturalist
perspective. A synthesis of these arguments will reveal Chopin’s
use of Edna’s demise to critique society while also critiquing Edna’s move
away from societal standards.
‘awakening’ to the oppressive role she holds in society, Edna responds
by committing suicide. She is emotionally unequipped to deal with
awakening and is unable to live within society according to the ideals
she has established for herself, illustrated through her suicide and the
events preceding it. Edna’s mother died when she was very young,
and she is raised by her emotionless sister. Because of this, Edna
is still a child emotionally and continually looks for a motherly influence.
The novel begins with the Pontellier family’s vacation, staying in the
Lebrun cottages on Grand Isle. Edna states early in the novel that
“I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading
impulse without question,” and that she often feels the same way this summer
(Chopin 17). It is during this vacation that Edna meets Robert, who
will eventually become the love of her live, though he is not her husband,
Madame Ratignolle, and Mademoiselle Reisz. When she drowns, Edna
is very childlike and unthinking, returning to the island where these three
people helped her discover her ‘awakened’ self. Edna has come full
circle, and now she is trying to return to the most childlike state, that
of the fetus. Her act of stripping off her clothes is not a gesture
of self-liberation but rather a “regression to. . . infancy. . . her experience
of rebirth is. . . backward to the womb” (Wolkenfeld 246). Throughout
the novel Edna illustrates her yearning for a mother and her need for a
mother figure, while shunning her own motherly duties. Madame Ratignolle
becomes Edna’s mother figure, and she refers to her as a “mother-woman..
. . They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their
husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals”
(Chopin 9). Madame Ratignolle eagerly accepts this role, recognizing
Edna’s childlike innocence by protecting and advising her.
Ratignolle’s childbirth is the first event prompting Edna’s suicide.
Edna observed “with an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against
the ways of Nature, [witnessing] the scene of torture” (Chopin 104).
During the childbirth, Edna obscurely recalls her own experience of childbirth,
but almost as if it happened to someone else and not herself. At
this time Edna only vaguely remembers that she herself has children, as
Madame Ratignolle implores her to “think of the children. Edna.
Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (Chopin 104). Edna
finally realizes the commitment and obligation she has to her children
“and that children can demand the mother’s life, even if they cannot claim
the woman’s soul” (Edwards 284). This realization is magnified when
she returns home and Robert, her true love, has gone. Not only can
she not escape her family, but now she must also live without the man that
returns to the island, and though she hasn’t planned on committing suicide
she seems subconsciously to know what she is doing. She swims far
out into the ocean knowing she is possibly going to swim too far out for
her to return: “[t]o her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind
her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never
be able to overcome” (Chopin 28). Edna’s thoughts at her time of
death are those of her childhood:
into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank
again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s.
She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree.
The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch.
There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.
Edna’s first thoughts
are definite images from her youth, then moving towards vague sounds and
smells. She becomes increasingly passive, letting the water gradually
“enfold . . . the body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin
109). The sea is a sensual, comforting image, and it draws Edna into
its embrace much like a mother.
views Edna as a character guided by destiny, and that her life is a pattern
of decisions made on a purely emotional level: “evidence of this lack of
command over her own feelings and actions continues to accumulate throughout
the novel” (Walker 255). Edna acts as if sleepwalking: “she was not
thinking” (Chopin 108) and continually has “half-awakened senses” (Chopin
32). She appears to have little to no control over her actions, and
repeatedly acts without knowing how or why she is acting. She doesn’t
fully realize she has sexual feelings for Robert until he is leaving.
At this point everyone else on the island has recognized that there was
some sexual tension within their relationship except Edna. When their
relationship is threatened “she recognize[s] anew the symptoms of infatuation”
she feels for Robert, never realizing her true feelings for him until he
is no longer part of her everyday life (Chopin 44).
argues that Edna does experience a sexual awakening in the hands of Robert
and Arobin, her second extramarital love interest, yet she is never conscious
of the actions she takes, continually acting without thinking: “in giving
herself over to emotion, Edna has allowed her decisions to be made below
the conscious level,. . . and she gives little thought to the consequences”
(Walker 256). She is childlike in her actions and thoughts, never
thinking before she acts, and never considering what might happen because
of her actions, and Walker believes that Edna dies only because “she does
nothing to stop it” (256). Edna is never conscious of her decisions,
therefore she cannot be a feminist. To be considered feminist, Edna
would have to be aware of her awakening, and would have to view herself
with a sense of social equality, instead she is only aware of increased
emotional and sexual urges.
Griffin Wolff takes Walker’s argument further. Wolff believes that
Edna’s suicide is the ultimate regression to childhood: “and with her final
act Edna completes the regression, back beyond childhood, back into time
eternal” (Wolff 241). Prompted by the birth of Madame Ratignolle’s
child, Edna desires to return to a fetal state. Freud defines this
“’Oceanic feeling,’ [as] the longing to recapture that sense of oneness
and. . . even, perhaps, the desire to be reincorporated into the safety
of pre-existence” which can be experienced through the symbolic reunification
of mother and child (Wolff 239). By committing suicide Edna successfully
escapes the society she no longer knows how to live in, although according
to Walker Edna acts totally unconsciously.
disagrees with Walker and argues for a feminist interpretation of the novel.
As the novel progresses, Edna begins to make increasingly “open-eyed choice[s]
to defy illusions and conventions” (Seyersted, The Awakening 206).
Throughout the novel Edna becomes increasingly sexual, also becoming aware
of her sexuality. Her bond of friendship with Robert seems harmless
at first, but when he leaves for Mexico Edna believes she is in love with
him: “For the first time she recognized anew the symptoms of infatuation.
. . to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that
she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which
her impassioned, newly awakened being demanded” (Chopin 44). Edna
has never had any sexual encounters with Robert, yet her emotions are so
aroused by her close friend she is “infatuated” with him. Until this
point, Edna seems to have not realized her feelings for Robert. In
time she will call these feelings love, but at this point she is deeply
upset because the man she is “infatuated” with is leaving. Edna’s
emotions have been stirred for the first time in a long time, and she is
unwilling to merely deal with the fact that the man who did this is leaving.
Edna goes into a childlike pout, neglecting the familial duties she previously
completed without fail.
awakening comes in two parts, the emotionally sexual awakening she experiences
with Robert and the physically sexual awakening reached with Arobin (Seyersted,
Kate Chopin 155). When Robert leaves her the first time, she is upset
and broods, unable to believe he left so abruptly, and without saying goodbye.
Arobin cannot gain this control over Edna’s emotions, as she distances
herself from him and restrains herself from becoming too emotionally attached.
Through her experience with Robert, Edna has learned to keep her emotional
distance from men, lest she be hurt again. Edna is definitely a more
sexual being now than previously in the novel. Before she recoiled
at the touch of her closest friend, and now she is indulging in a forbidden
kiss, holding Arobin close to prolong the contact. She is also more
reserved. Arobin is quite anxious to see Edna again, but Edna pushes
him away telling him she will see him at her dinner party, “not an instant
sooner” (Chopin 82). Edna takes control of the situation, pushing
Arobin away when he begs to see her again, having come to an enlightened
state of being, learning from her mistakes and being an active force in
her own life. Edna now makes decisions (such as moving out of the
house) based on what is right for her, choices that will drastically affect
her life, doing so with open eyes and a clear head.
critics accurately describe Edna at some point in the novel. In the
beginning of the novel she is impulsive and childlike. Her main inspiration
is immediate pleasure and she acts mainly on impulse. Edna continues
happily along in her life until Robert decides to leave for Mexico.
Her bubble of happiness is burst, and she realizes she cannot have both
Robert and her current, married life. As she considers the situation,
Edna comes to a realization about herself. She will not be owned
by anyone, even her children, but especially not by her husband:
“I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not.
I give myself where I choose” (Chopin 102). Edna asserts her autonomy
further, claiming her independence from both men: “if he were to say, ‘Here,
Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both”
(Chopin 102). To make the conscious decision to never be married
again, even to the man she loves, is a huge step for Edna. She has
finally decided what she wants and is willing to act upon those impulses.
Edna has become aware of herself emotionally and physically, realizing
she has been looking to the wrong sources (her influential, high society
husband) for fulfillment. Though her actions are not totally agreeable,
they are somewhat noble. Edna totally shuns the commitment she has
towards her children for her own selfish reasons. At the same time
she is strong enough to declare what she wants and act upon her declaration
as almost everyone around her tells her that her actions are totally wrong.
merging the feminist and naturalist views on the text, a satisfying, though
unsettling, conclusion concerning Edna’s suicide can be reached.
In the beginning of the novel Edna is, as Walker suggests, acting without
thinking. As the novel continues, though, Edna’s senses awaken into
a more “open-eyed” state, as Seyersted argues. Edna “wanted to swim
far out, where no woman had swum before” (Chopin 27). But by swimming
out so far, Edna doesn’t have the strength to swim back to shore.
The tragedy that befalls Edna is that she has had this awakening, and because
of it she desires to reach new heights and do things that no woman has
done before. Once she reaches this point, she doesn’t have the strength
to return to shore or society. Chopin critiques the society Edna
lives in, but also critiques moving away from society.
her critique of Edna’s society Chopin critiques her own society as well.
Chopin’s life parallels Edna’s in many ways. Like Edna, Chopin was
weary of religion, and after her daughter’s birth she “was finally freed
from constant pregnancy and able to listen much more to her own needs”
(Toth 116-7). When Chopin’s husband died she easily embraced her
newfound freedom, as Edna does when she leaves Mr. Pontellier. Chopin
was being courted by a man, yet she made the decision to remain single
and move back in with her mother (Toth 117). Chopin was very unconventional,
and refused “to remarry: obviously she preferred her freedom, her writing,
and her solitude” (Toth 119). The main difference between Edna and
Chopin is found in their upbringing. Chopin “grew up surrounded by
single and very independent women, both at home and at the Sacred Heart
Academy, where the sisters were famous for their intellectual rigor” (Toth
115). Edna returns to society awakened and thoroughly changed.
When Chopin is presented with pleasure she is able to enjoy it while also
remaining emotionally distanced, most likely because she was raised by
strong, independent women. She does enjoy these pleasures, but she
never lets them rule her life as Edna does. In her diary, Chopin
claims “there are a few good things in life--not many, but a few.
A soft, firm, magnetic sympathetic hand clasp is one. A walk through
the quiet streets at midnight is another. And then, there are so
many ways of saying good night!” (Seyersted Miscellany 96). Chopin
enjoyed the company of men, yet unlike Edna let them come and go without
becoming overly attached to any of them.
critique of society may seem tame; Edna never has sexual relations with
another man until she tells Mr. Pontellier she is leaving him. But
the society that Edna belongs to is based on a very strict set of rules
known as the Napoleonic code. Women had little rights and were considered
property of their husbands. They were expected to go wherever their
husband chose to live, and were legally unable to “sign any legal contract,.
. . institute a lawsuit, appear in court, hold public office, or make a
donation to a living person” (Culley 120). Women had no rights, and
were legally bound to do whatever their husbands decided was best.
The woman’s place in society is excellently captured in a law detailing
those unable to bear witness to testaments: “1. Women of any age
whatsoever. 2. Male children who have not attained the age
of sixteen years complete. 3. Persons who are insane, deaf,
dumb or blind. 4. Persons whom the criminal laws declare incapable
of exercising civil functions” (Culley 120). Women were placed on
the same legal level as children, invalids and the incarcerated, and notably,
they are the first on the list, as if the author wanted to make especially
certain that women were included in this law. The society Chopin
wrote about and lived in oppresses women in every way possible. Once
married, they are transformed into property and have the legal status of
a slave. In this society a woman has little hope, other than to pray
that the man she marries is kind to her.
options are limited once she has awakened. She can go back to her
husband and children, since a relationship with Robert is now out of the
question, or she can live a life of solitude like Mademoiselle Reisz.
From what we know of Edna, we know that neither of these options are feasible
for her. Therefore Edna is left without any choices. Chopin
illustrates the price Edna must pay for awakening; she no longer has any
viable place in the society she belongs to. Would it have been better
for Edna had she never awakened at all? Feminists would argue that Edna’s
awakening is necessary and liberating, but it isn’t very liberating to
be forced into a lifestyle where there is no accepting, societal niche
for yourself. Modern feminists must avoid reading Chopin’s text within
a modern context, as doing so diminishes the affect Edna’s choices subsequently
make on her life. Edna is feminist in nature, but her feminism comes
with a price, and not many people are strong enough to endure social ostracizing
to enjoy personal freedom. Chopin wonderfully illustrates Edna’s
dilemma, showing possible consequences of becoming enlightened outside
the context of a broader social movement. By the end of the novel,
Chopin still refuses to tell us whether Edna’s awakening is liberating,
or if it is tragic. Placing Chopin in categories such as “feminist”
and “naturalist,” we lose this poignant interpretation of the novel by
trying to force her into these categories in every way, but by accepting
her into both categories, a broader interpretation of the novel is gained,
as well as a more inclusive and explanatory body of criticism.
The Awakening. A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin:
The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. 2nd ed. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1994. 3-109.
Culley, Margo, ed.
A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening.
New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
“Sexuality, Maternity, and Selfhood.” A Norton Critical Edition:
Kate Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New
York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 282-285.
Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1969.
---. “Kate Chopin
and the American Realists.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate
Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1994. 202-208.
Seyersted, Per, and
Emily Toth, eds. A Kate Chopin Miscellany. Natchitoches:
Northwestern State University Press, 1979.
“A New Biographical Approach.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate
Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W.
Norton, 1994. 113-119.
“Feminist or Naturalist.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin:
The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W.
Norton, 1994. 252-257.
“Thanatos and Eros.” A Norton Critical Edition: Kate Chopin:
The Awakening. Ed. Margo Culley. New York: W.W.
Norton, 1994. 231-241.
“Edna’s Suicide: The Problem of the One and the Many.” A Norton
Critical Edition: Kate Chopin: The Awakening. Ed. Margo
Culley. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 241-247.