Edna’s Victorian Womanhood

Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, has borne a burden of criticism and speculation since its initial publication. While many past critics have chastised Chopin and condemned the novel for the portrayal of an adulterous heroine, modern responses are often inexorably concerned with drawing conclusions about the novel’s inconclusive ending. Most modern critics have set aside moral considerations about Edna’s adulterous behavior in favor of multitudinous considerations of the final scene of the novel: Edna’s death. Readers want to know whether Edna’s death was intentional. It is hard to escape dwelling on this point because the answer determines whether Edna has succeeded or surrendered. The reader seeks conclusion for satisfaction, yet this sought after conclusion is not given by Chopin. However, Chopin’s failure to provide all the answers and her failure to give Edna lines of thoughtful explanation for her actions is not a fault, nor should it be a criticism of the novel. Whether Edna means to kill herself, whether she is reclaiming her authority over her life by taking it or whether she is simply giving up, is an important consideration, the author’s simple answer to which would depress the novel’s power to produce readers’ thought and speculation while possibly leading to negative social assumptions. To understand and find satisfaction in the end of the novel, one must appreciate both the freedom of discourse permitted by such a non-ending and the implications of the portrayal of female adultery and suicide in the nineteenth century. Although the escalation of the plot implies that Edna’s demise is necessary, as she cannot be free to live the life she chooses, a suicide would present a problem in that it provides a conclusion for readers that attaches to Edna the social conceptions by which female suicide was defined. Suicide would not just have been seen as another moral transgression for a selfish character, it could be deduced, applying popular thought on female suicide, that Edna’s problem was not systemic and not a problem with society but rather a problem with her own mental state. Chopin may not define Edna’s death as suicide because to do so would be to provide a conclusion that would invite social interpretation of her act rather than deliberation as to her intentions and alternatives. Rather than speculate on her intentions, requiring close reading of the events that drove her to her death, closure through definitive suicide invites interpretation through the lenses of nineteenth century thought on female suicide, a lens that would be sure to condemn and isolate her and her plight.As Chopin’s novel draws to a close, hope begins to wane that Edna will find happiness and freedom in her social world. The novel must end in Edna’s death because society cannot offer a solution to her problem or acknowledge her needs. With the imminence of her husband’s return, Edna has no choice but to either play the part of dutiful wife and move back into his house or attempt an escape likely to warrant condemnation and dismissal from her society. The reader would be sorely disappointed if Edna returned to her house to live her life in misery because such an action would be anticlimactic and outside of Edna’s character. Edna’s daring increases throughout the novel and Chopin admits that her “original conception of the novel was changed by Edna’s making such a mess of things” (Treu 2). By the end of the novel, Edna has abandoned her Tuesdays at home, coming and going as she pleases. She has also moved to her own house where she has engaged in extra-marital affairs. Having broken nearly all social codes and knowing her husband’s return must put an end to it, Edna has no choice but escape or return. However, escape with Robert proves unachievable. His desire to make her his wife and possess her is not possible and also not what she wants. Edna says “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” (Chopin, 102). A continuation of her affair with Robert could not bring happiness because he has the same intention of possessing her. Robert’s note “good-bye- because I love you” ( Chopin, 106) puts an end to their affair. From this point on Edna’s intentions can only be speculated. Edna can neither be happy or have what she wants. She is incapable of self-ownership and autonomy. The novel has diagnosed something for which there is no answer. While a return to her society position would be anticlimactic her escape from it seems impossible. Edna’s death is necessary to the plot, but yet it is left ambiguous.Such ambiguity, however, is consistent with the rest of the novel and serves Chopin’s purpose. Edna is consistently a very passive character. The major decisions she makes in the novel hardly seem like decisions at all. When she is asked why she has abandoned her Tuesdays at home she replies “I simply felt like going out, and I went out” (Chopin, 49). When Edna tells of her plans of renting a house, Mademoiselle Reisz replies “Your reason is not yet clear to me” and the narrator goes on to say “neither was it quite clear to Edna herself” (76). Edna’s first encounter with a drowning death again takes the reader to the limits of Edna’s inconsideration. As she swims, Edna seems purposeless, “she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” implying that she is not conscious of it. “A quick vision of death smote her soul and enfeebled her senses.” Once again this implies her passivity and lack of influence over her environment. Her death fittingly reveals the same structure. Edna does not determine that she will commit suicide; her decision to go down to the beach is only a notion, Edna says “I have a notion to go down to the beach and take a good wash and even a little swim, before dinner” (Chopin, 107). Edna continues by saying that she “might go down and try” (Chopin, 108). Asking twice about dinner and requesting some towels, the reader is unprepared to accept a premeditated suicide. As she swims into the ocean her thoughts are of her children, husband and childhood. She has no resolve but to swim and as the ocean and distance overcome her, her strength disappears. Her body propels her forward, the ocean challenges her strength and yet her mind is without resolution. Does Edna make the conscious decision to die? Is her death a reclamation of her body or is she simply giving up?Chopin’s ending is both fitting and shocking as it demands thought from the reader. It refuses to supply a simple answer. Whether Edna has surrendered or succeeded, died accidentally or through her own decision, is left for the reader to decide. Neither idea can be proven, yet interpretation is encouraged if not necessary. The reader’s mind hungers for conclusion; however, one is not supplied. One can imagine responses to alternate conclusions less effective at producing thought. In the event that Edna thinks “That’s it! I cannot go on, I will never have the freedom I choice to possess, I must end my life” the reader thinks, “how sad! I feel sorry for a person who is so dissatisfied they must end their life.” In the event that the novel ends with Edna thinking “I am desperate and the only way to claim my life is to take it” the reader thinks “hmm, it’s sad that Edna could not find happiness in life but she has made a decision that is a victory to her.” The last scenario one could imagine is that Edna, aimlessly swimming, realizes “I’m too far from the shore, I feel tired, and the sea is too powerful. Help!” In which case the reader thinks “Somebody help her! Why did you swim so far? Didn’t you learn your lesson from the last time?” However, Chopin fails to adopt any of these conclusions. The reader’s response to these endings would seem contained and brief. Chopin’s real ending, however, produces other feelings. “Why?” asks the reader. “Was it intentional?” A search for answers must occur. Chapters are reread and Edna’s thoughts and statements are reviewed. Finally the reader comes to a conclusion that can not be proven. This conclusion cannot be a definitive conclusion but rather a subjective conclusion in that the thoughts of the reader influence the novel by giving more or less weight to evidences pointing towards Edna’s intentions. A subjective interpretation is necessary. This interpretation is important in that the reader is challenged to take into consideration the evidences the novel provides and interpret them to draw a conclusion. This personal interpretation allows the reader to justify the ending in relation to both the rest of the novel and their own feelings toward Edna and the situation. If the reader feels that Edna has committed suicide, they must feel that she had no way out. It is more difficult to criticize a character and their actions when you have deduced their actions instead of the author giving them. For closure in this novel, the reader must ask what Edna would be likely to do and to a lesser extent and perhaps subconsciously, what they would do. The inconclusive ending has a way of drawing the reader in while stimulating identification and thought on larger issues. When a reader is asked to draw his or her own conclusions it is less likely for the character to face criticism and condemnation in the eyes of the reader and more likely that reader is able to identify with the character.Identification with a character is important, especially for a character readily condemned by the standards of her society. Chopin acknowledges the “mother women” who represented what Edna, as a wife and mother, was supposed to be. Chopin says of these mother women , “They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (Chopin, 9). Indeed, society expected books to be about such women; the portrayal of an adulterous woman who refuses to let her husband and children “possess her, body and soul” was a moral abomination. Chopin does her best to let us see who Edna really is, and who she can be as she comes to realize the “blind contentment” that is the existence of the mother women. Chopin also allows society’s perspective into the novel through the thoughts and actions of males in the novel, especially Lonce and Doctor Mandelet. As Lonce finds Edna’s independent behavior disturbing, he makes an important trip to the family doctor. Not surprisingly for the time period, Lonce and the doctor see Edna’s actions as a result of a individual psychological problem rather than a social issue. Lonce tells the doctor “I don’t know what ails her” I tell you she’s peculiar. I don’t like it; I feel a little worried over it” (Chopin, 63). Although doctor Mandelet insists that “women are not all alike” , Lonce goes on to tell him what he believes are egregious symptoms that set her apart from all other women (Chopin, 63). In Lonce’s eyes Edna seems on the verge of being mentally ill. To his nineteenth century male mind Edna’s actions can mean nothing other than illness. Through Lonce Chopin seems to acknowledge her reader’s response and popular nineteenth century female stereotypes, and ideas on mental illness and suicide in the female sex. Edna’s perspective through the novel seems to discredit these ideas as does Chopin’s conclusion technique.Chopin’s lack of definitive closure fails to provide the best reaffirming outlet for dominant theories about female mental illness and suicide. Modern nineteenth century thought on such issues assumed that “traditional familial values were the best protection against self-destruction” (Treu). In this century suicide was a growing phenomenon. Attributed to the competitive economic environment and the growth of the capitalist economy suicide was found to be three times as likely in men, whose sphere, the world of commerce and economics, was in. Reinforced by stories of men who were driven to self-destruction after financial ruin and business crises, male suicide became a societal problem. Society put men at risk for this phenomenon. Women, however, were different. Their position outside of the social sphere and position rather in the home environment was felt to have inoculated them against this danger. Women were “more sedentary and followed more regular practices,” they were also “more religious and more resigned to life” (True 1). However, suicide in women, although not as common, did occur. It was just not thought a problem with society. “Suicide among women was portrayed as an individual emotional act and, thus inconsequential, while male suicide was seen as a barometer of national economic and social well-being” (2). Female suicide was thought only to occur when women deviated from their traditional role and “left the security of their families.” (True 2) This decision was often attributed to mental illness and ended in suicide. If Edna were to follow this nineteenth century logic she would end her life with a definitive suicide. However, Chopin’s conclusion for the novel is limited. Edna cannot succeed by getting what she wants in her society. Her problem is diagnosed and yet there can be no solution and no conclusion. If Edna were to definitively kill herself she would seemingly fit the female suicide model akin to nineteenth century society. Her death, not left open for interpretation, would invite a preponderance of societal attributions. Edna’s death would serve to reinforce these perceptions as did novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and The House of Mirth. An attempt to show the hopelessness of Edna’s situation is easily turned into fodder for these ideals. Chopin’s ending lets us see Edna’s death as something between accident and suicide, defeat and victory. One cannot decide that it is a defeating suicide without acknowledging the possibilities of accident and victory. Chopin’s ending requires a deeper thought.

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