Failure or Success: The Conflict over Edna Pontellier’s Suicide

July 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

Much controversy surrounds the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and for good reason; the novel can be used to support two completely opposing views. On one hand the suicide of Edna Pontellier can be seen as the ultimate culmination of Edna’s awakening as she comes to see both herself and her place in reality and begins to fully and ultimately control her own destiny rather than giving up what she has gained. Conversely, Edna’s end can be seen as a most terrible failure that mocks not only her own awakening, but also the message that Kate Chopin intends to relate. Multiple passages and ideas from the novel can be used to support each view and in some cases, depending on interpretation, both.It is easy for readers to dismiss Edna’s suicide as a failure, because frankly it’s unpleasant. People instinctively shy away from death, and the strength and growth that Edna shows through the course of the novel make her death sting all the worse while at the same time making it feel wrong. The last chapter, in which Edna actually drowns herself, contains a good deal of evidence in support of the negative view of Edna’s death. Early on, she reveals the core of her failure; she has shed off the entire world she had lived in, but is unable to define a world into which she can enter. First, she tells of discarding the men in her life. “‘Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier…'” she says as she realizes “There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.(pg. 188-189) She then explains away her children as “antagonists” who sought to enslave her soul, “But,” she confides, “she knew a way to elude them.”(pg. 189) She finally escapes the mental enslavement by men and her children that society had attempted to force upon her, but she was unprepared to suddenly shed everything in her world, for she had nowhere to go and became depressed for “there was no one thing in the world she desired.”(pg. 198) Edna’s failure can be seen as battling forward without looking where she was headed and thus ending up in limbo. There are several instances in the final chapter where Edna herself supports the view of herself as a failure. As she walks onto the beach she claims that there is no living thing to be seen, but in the very next sentence she describes a bird with a broken wing falling into the sea. In the novel birds are frequently symbols for women and Edna in particular. Viewing the bird with a broken wing as Edna, we see that although the bird flies free, it is too injured to continue on and so dies in the sea. The fact that Edna claims that no living thing can be seen may imply that she views herself as already symbolically “dead” due to her failure and her swim merely completes the process, as does the bird’s dive into the sea. The image of the sea as seductive further lends credence to this idea as it provides a final escape from the struggle and despondency she cannot overcome. The sea also is described as “coiled like serpents”, which are a classic symbol of seductive evil.(pg. 189) Perhaps Edna’s clearest admission of failure is her thought of Mademoiselle Reisz sneering at her act of suicide, “And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.”(pg. 190) This last imagining clearly shows that Edna knew she had failed, knew she was lacking. She then goes on to admit that there lay in Doctor Mandelet the possibility of understanding, of not being alone. However, in her hurry to escape a reality she was unequipped to deal with she had not even grasped at the chance. Perhaps Chopin meant to emphasize the hostility of the Victorian world to feminist ideals, but ultimately she emphasized more a womanly weakness, something surely unintended in what is otherwise a clearly feminist novel. Edna fights through obstacles both internal and external to grow in independence and self-awareness; she lives on her own, excels in her expression through painting, dissolves her responsibility to children and husband, and then suddenly it is as if Robert’s inability to fit her newly uncovered demands drains all the strength from her. This progression to Edna’s ultimate failure in death undermines the message that Chopin spends most of her novel setting up.With a little thought and perspective on Edna’s struggle one can move beyond the simple “death is bad” mentality and see Edna’s death for what it truly is, a symbol for the completeness of Edna’s awakening and ultimately a conscious defiance of the forces that would try to keep her entrapped. Again, the final chapter, as it deals with Edna’s final thoughts, gives us the most insight into her end. As previously noted Edna had overcome obstacles like Arobin, Leonce, her children, and with a push Robert. Her sadness rose not from anything lacking in herself, but from the realization that her awakened self could not exist long in the still closed-minded Victorian world, especially alone. This is illustrated by the final freedom of the bird with the broken wing that represents Edna. The bird is able to fly uncaged, but is still restrained by a hostile world that injures it, and rather than limp about, free but unable to soar, it plunges into the sea. Both main female figures in the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle, are presented as unfit role models for Edna, and with the option of living an awakened life with Robert abruptly closed off, she is left with only one option that will solve all her problems and fulfill her needs. Edna is unwilling to compromise in any way the free and independent self she has developed; she realizes that to continue on she would have to do just that. When Edna steps out of her bathing suit to stand bare before nature she reaches the end of her journey toward self-actualization, for she has finally become the most she can be. To turn back, put on clothes, settle in a relationship married or otherwise, or to be chained by societal pressures to her children, would be a regression, and one unacceptable to Edna. Thus, Edna takes firm control of her destiny and leaves behind a world that cannot further her. The sea is described as sensuous, inviting, even loving, and provides a fit medium for the continuation of Edna’s journey beyond life. Viewed in this way Edna’s suicide is not a failure, but any other choice available would be.No matter which argument one is in favor of, it is easy to see that the novel supports both views to some extent. Whether Edna’s suicide was a failure on her part or her greatest success depends both on the reader’s own feelings, and on the interpretation of the evidence presented by the novel, which is easily influenced by the first. Do these opposing, but equally supported claims lessen the meaning of the book or destroy it entirely? We can leave that question to the deconstructionists.

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