by Joshua H. Liberatore
As Edna Pontellier swims offshore and enters the cold, numbing waters that swallow her at the end of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, she recalls a critical conversation she had with her friend Adèle Ratignolle about the nature and extent of maternal self-sacrifice. Edna had claimed – to her friend’s consternation – that she would only be willing to sacrifice “the unessential” (money, physical life, etc.) for her children’s sake, not “the essential” (presumably, her soul’s freedom of will). This troubling conversation, familiar to readers from the early chapters of the book, seems to contain the breadth of contradictions and mysteries contained in Edna’s path to suicide, and in the first instance, the reader shares Mme. Ratignolle’s dismay and confusion as to just what Edna means. But by the novel’s closing paragraphs, we understand that Edna and her friend are talking about two very different types of responsibility. Ultimately, Edna’s tumultuous “awakening” pitches her into a struggle between responsibility to her family and her society on the one hand and the deeper responsibility to preserve her own free spirit on the other, with her suicide marking a deadly, but final, victory of the latter over the former.
Chopin explores the very real dangers faced by anyone – especially a woman in the late 19th century Creole aristocracy – who would dare to defy convention and live a thoroughly interior life, beholden to no one’s will but her own. Edna Pontellier, far from the prototypical fallen woman we observe in Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, does not pin her hopes on successful adultery or a mere break with her filial duties as mother and wife. From Edna’s last – and critically interrupted – conversation with her thwarted love Robert Lebrun, we see that she entertains no notions of divorcing her husband to elope with the younger, more attentive Robert. She even quips that if her husband Léonce were to “offer” her freely to his rival Robert, she “should laugh at [them] both.”
We see that Edna’s goals do not rest on the faint hope of consummating her flirtation and deep feelings for Robert, nor were they a simple rejection of her boring family life – a husband who treats her like “a valuable piece of property,” and children who find better care at their grandmother’s farm. She is trapped by either a failure or triumph of more complex proportions, and her suicide leaves either interpretation plenty of room for validation. As failure her death march into the sea’s overwhelming embrace represents her inability to live up to Mlle. Reisz’s strict example of the liberated courageous artist with “strong wings” to carry her to new heights of independence and self-actualization. In this case, her dalliance with Alcée Arobin (Robert’s mediocre foil) and her unrealized but serious love affair with Robert (who lacks Arobin’s open disdain for propriety and convention) are both signs that Edna’s wings are not as strong as they could be. Shackled by the weakness of spirit (or imagination, and certainly Mlle. Reisz’s fiery talent) and the burden of the domestic norms that she cannot eschew completely, her suicide confirms an enterprise gone awry, stymied by circumstance.
More uncomfortable, perhaps, the suicide as triumph finds support in Edna’s belief that she is only sacrificing the “unessential” (physical life), and not succumbing to the enslavement of her soul. As she stands naked on the shore contemplating her course, she imagines her two sons as “tiny antagonists,” living reminders of the barrier to her total freedom, which keeps her from pursuing her painting and her pretensions to simple living to their fullest measure. Mme. Ratignolle had stated naively (in Edna’s opinion) that to give one’s life for one’s children was the ultimate sacrifice that any mother could be expected to make. “You could do no more,” she offers, to which Edna replies, almost arrogantly, “Oh, yes you could.” With no possible social or sexual outcome, Edna’s awakening must be pursued “on the spiritual” plane of existence.
As she swims to her death, although the mixed imagery of chained dogs and pungent pink flowers leaves us quite unsettled, Edna must believe that she has pursued her “awakening” to its only logical culmination, necessitating a physical death. Does she think she is protecting her children in this act of sacrifice, as the original context of the conversation indicated? Is she looking after her husband’s reputation by staging a plausible “accident” (Edna was well-known as a weak swimmer)? This line of questioning is left beautifully ambiguous and unresolved, but what is clear are the haunting stakes of self-actualization, the terrifying price one pays for total independence, and perhaps, (chillingly) the inherent self-cancellation of pure acts of will.