Edna Pontellier’s Suicide: Freedom or Failure
While in an age that was unhurriedly awakening to the unrestricted needs of women (i.e. the need for better education, the freedom to vote, rights to her own property and her own children), Chopin dared to write of concealed needs that that era irreverently tried to deny to be of existence. As perceived in Chopin’s world, matrimony was the definitive goal of every woman’s life, service to her husband and her children her prime responsibilities, subservience her tacit virtue, self-sacrifice her daily practice and her pleasure. Women who value and accept that world appear in Chopin’s The Awakening, as well as women who only partly confront the seemingly insignificance of women in that they would never ask for more freedom than what they could benefit from being under their husbands’ shelter.
Yet what interest Chopin most is the woman who demands her own direction and chooses her own freedom as have been depicted in the struggles of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in the story. The Awakening depicts Edna as a captive in her society– a female, has children, and is a wife in a society that commands behavioral customs based on those circumstances. Throughout the story, she is depicted as overwhelmed by these roles. Her struggles brought her to a rather tragic affirmation of her circumstances. Although it may seen that she had experienced a real awakening, the option she took to overcome what has been perceived as life’s tragedies, was one that was self-gratifying and consuming. Since the moral implications of her roles (woman, mother, and wife) are so deeply ingrained in Edna’s psyche that there is no way to get rid of them, except through death, in the end her seemingly wasted years was symbolically represented by a bird with a broken wing:
All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing (Chap 39, 300) was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water. (Ibid, 301)
Edna’s life, so much like that of a bird that is capable of reaching great heights, came to a fatal end, not because of its own choice but rather of natural circumstances, that even with its efforts to recover it was washed off by the bickering waves of the ocean.
At the start of the story, it was obvious that she will not in any way try to suppress her personal impulses, however her maternal instincts drive her to consider the interests of her children (Raoul and Etienne) with every decision she makes, while at the same time she is in a web of complicated circumstances because of the men in her life (her father, her husband, her lover, and her would-be-lover). All throughout the story she longed for her individuality and freedom– freedom to decide what to be, how to think, and how to live. Edna struggles for she understands that she cannot simply do whatever her heart tells her to do without considering its consequence. “At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life — that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (Chap 7, 35). No matter how hard she tries to pay no attention to customs and the people around her, she cannot run away from her responsibility to her children. Her plight resembles that of a bird as Chopin chooses to describe and in one instance, we caught her somewhat being tempted when we hear one of the characters, Mademoiselle Reisz, saying, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ “Whither would you soar?” (Chap 27, 217). She fully understands that she is not acting in a vacuum, however, thus she cannot just run off from her children and to let them fend for themselves in a difficult world. Even though she is determined to risk social seclusion for herself, she acknowledges that she needs to protect her children. To do that, she must compromise some of her principles and desires.
However, towards the middle of the story, Edna affirms her convictions that she is not owned by any one. She has finally realized her significance. And we then hear her saying: “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself…it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (Chap 16, 122). In the ensuing chapter we see her showing physical manifestation of her disregard to her predicament. Her taking off of her wedding ring and stepping on it is a deliberate although childish expression of her disgust over her marriage. Such action, never made any change in what is in reality however: “But her small boot heel did not make an indenture, not a mark upon the little glittering circlet (Chap 17, 135). She realized that and thought that she could do better than just discard all her bitterness to any object that could not fight back or respond to her immature actions. To show her utter repulsion over her situation, “she begun to do as she liked and to feel as she liked” (Chap 19, 146) instead. This time, she enjoys her new-found freedom. She started having solitary, peaceful dinners, visits her friends, and does quite a bit of painting. She also goes to the racetracks to bet on horses. With herself engaged in her new-found hobby, her household was left to the care of her house helpers. Since her helpers at times became the subject of her new passion the house consequently turned out to be in a total mess. Her rebellion came to a high point when she decided to leave her husband Leonce and have an affair with Alcee Arobin.
The ultimate culmination of Edna’s awakening unfolded when she comes to see both herself and her place in reality and begins to fully understand the graveness of her condition: that there are some things in life that she could not change like her marriage, the fact of her having children and that she the man that she truly loves could not love her back, she decided to overcome these situations by ending her life. However, while at the beach back in Grand Isle where the story started, Chopin made it clear that “She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach” (Chapter 39, 299). She does not want to be like Adele Ratignolle, the epitome of motherhood and femininity, or Mlle. Reisz, the eccentric, ugly, and irritable, woman who lives alone and somehow tries to overcome her loneliness by engaging in music. She does not want to live with Leonce, a man obsessed with money, or with Arobin, a charming young man who has the reputation of being a philanderer, or even with Robert, who does not have the courage to fight for his love for her. Instead she wants an indeterminate, restrained, indescribable life that she cannot articulate or even shape. Rather than live any one of these options, or live a life that society dictates, Edna chooses to live self-forgetfully at that particular moment. Her coming back where it all began seems like a metaphorical desire to start everything all off. As she walks down the beach and stands naked in the sun, we are reminded of person’s descent from her mother’s womb—her direction towards the ocean and not away from it merely represents her desire to get back to the time where she was still unborn. Chopkin complements this triumphant moment as Edna’s unspoken realization, “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (Ibid, 301). While in the water, Edna remembers thoughts of her childhood: she heard her father’s and her sister Margaret’s voices. 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 (Ibid, 303). She has finally found freedom in the ocean and drowning brings her back inside herself.
Chopkin, Kate. The Awakening. (1899) Herbert S. Stone and Company: Chicago
pp. 1-303. Boss, Judy. Machine-readable version (1999). Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia . Retrieved March 25, 2009 from Etext.Virginia.com Website: by the http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer- new2?id=ChoAwak.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed& tag=public&part=all