Reconciling Edna’s Suicide and the Criticism Surrounding 
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
 

By: Mary Bird
Knox College Common Room: Volume 3, Number 1
October 8, 1999
URL:  http://nthome.knox.edu/deptorg/engdept/commonroom/Volume_Three/number_one/mbird/

There 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.

After ‘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.

Madame 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 she loves.

Edna 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: 

She looked 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.  (Chopin 109)
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.

Walker 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).

Walker 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.

Cynthia 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.
 
Seyersted 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.    

Edna’s 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.  
 
Both 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.

By 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.  

Through 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.

Chopin’s 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.

Edna’s 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.
 

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate.  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.  

Edwards, Lee.  “Sexuality, Maternity, and Selfhood.”  A Norton Critical Edition:  Kate  Chopin:  The Awakening.  Ed. Margo Culley.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1994.  282-285. 

Seyersted, Per.  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.

Toth, Emily.  “A New Biographical Approach.”  A Norton Critical Edition:  Kate Chopin: The Awakening.  Ed. Margo Culley.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1994.  113-119.

Walker, Nancy.  “Feminist or Naturalist.”  A Norton Critical Edition:  Kate Chopin:  The  Awakening.  Ed. Margo Culley.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1994.  252-257.

Wolff, Cynthia.  “Thanatos and Eros.”  A Norton Critical Edition:  Kate Chopin:  The  Awakening.  Ed. Margo Culley.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1994.  231-241.

Wolkenfeld, Suzanne.  “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.
 

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