Edna’s tale is full of awakenings and so it must be full of deaths too. Throughout the story the old dies to make space for the new. Edna buries her old self to enable her new self to be born. Despite their only symbolic meaning, these deaths as well as awakenings are of great significance for Edna’s ultimate decision. She in fact approaches her ultimate decision through her deaths and awakenings.
Most discussions of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening attempt to judge Edna Pontellier’s final decision. There are as many ways of looking at Edna’s last act, as there are readers. Each of the looks offers different perspectives. I believe that it was Chopin’s purpose to leave the story open.
Although some of the interpretations even argue whether Edna wanted to die and thus committed a suicide or whether it was an accident coming from overestimating her swimming skills, I incline to agree with the statement that Edna’s intention was to die. In my opinion, her plan was to drown herself but she wanted her act to be viewed as an accident. Therefore, before her last swim, she stops to have a talk with Victor, borrows a couple of towels, orders fish for dinner and even talks about the afternoon. Edna behaves a common way, so there is no reason to suspect her of anything else than a taste to have a swim. However, I believe that the conversation was a calculated act in order to create conditions for viewing her suicide as an accident. This seems to be the only reasoning for her visit at Victor’s place.
Edna’s conversation with Victor provides arguments for defending my theory about planned act. When Edna asks about the dinner, she learns that it is almost ready. “What time will you have dinner?” asked Edna. “I am very hungry; but don’t get anything extra.” “I’ll have it ready in little or no time,” Victor said (114). Victor offers to Edna his room so as she could have a rest before dinner. However, although the dinner is almost ready and despite her hunger, she refuses to wait arguing: “But, do you know, I have a notion to go down to the beach and take a good wash and even a little swim, before dinner?” (114). Victor tries to prevent her from going: “The water is too cold!” he exclaimed. “Don’t think of it.” (114) But Edna is determined to do what she must, nothing can stop her, nothing can be sufficient enough argument to avert her last awakening.
If only a swimming was concerned she would probably resign due to cold water and have dinner with Victor. Instead, hungry Edna ignores dinner and starts to walk away. And here, other important prove to support my opinion appears when Edna remarks towards Victor: “I hope, you have fish for dinner.” This note sounds very illogical because the dinner was almost cooked. Moreover, Edna did not claim anything special. So, the question is why she suddenly specifies her wish and requests fish for dinner.
It is my view that her unexpected realization of a probability that Victor could follow her to the beach when the cooking seems to be finished soon raises her fears. The last thing she wishes for is to be on her last journey accompanied. She needs to avoid it therefore requests dinner because it takes time to prepare it and makes Victor busy to get it. My suggestion is that Edna is trying to get more time for her last „swim“ and does not want to be accompanied and disturbed. From my point of view, she was determined and sure of what she wanted to do and gave it a careful thought.
To understand Edna’s suicide and to be able to evaluate it, one must be familiar with Edna’s life before and after her awakening because Edna’s suicide is nothing but result of her previous actions and their consequences.
Firstly, I want to mention the events leading up to Edna’s death. The two people Edna met before she determined herself to end her life, were Robert Lebrun and Adéle Ratignolle. These two people were at the beginning of Edna’s awakenings so it seems symbolical that they contributed also to her final decision. Both of them make a useless try to bring Edna back to “normal” real world, the world where marriage and motherhood are on the first place. It appears to be an irony of the destiny that the same people who are responsible to begin the series of Edna’s awakenings claim her to give up her desires and accept conventions. However, for Edna this would mean to deny herself.
Although Robert stays in Mexico and cannot participate in most of Edna’s awakenings, his role is very important. He contributed to one of Edna’s first awakenings and has crucial role for her ultimate decision. When Robert returns from Mexico, Edna’s dreams seem to come true. She is living her independent life separately from her husband, so the conditions for fulfilling her romantic love look ideal. However, their reunion does not match Edna’s expectations because Robert shows to be unable to escape and ignore the rules of society. She declares that “some way he had seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico” (124).
Edna believes that Robert will be proud of her independence, that her separation from the husband will reinforce their love and help them forget the past. However, Robert by his behaviour shows that he is not as brave hero as he appeared to be at the island. Instead, he resembles her father and husband, the symbols of oppression.
Robert does not believe that the past can be deleted -it is obvious when he still calls Edna by her married name “Why are you so personal, Mrs. Pontellier?”, when he mentions Léonce several times, and refers to the Pontellier mansion as Edna’s home, although she has moved to live alone.
Robert makes a plan to earn enough money in order for Edna to leave her husband and marry him. He plans to request that Léonce set Edna free so that he may make her his wife.
“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. 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.” His face grew a little white. “What do you mean?” he asked. (108)
This is a moment when Edna disappointedly realizes Robert is a coward who would behave the same way as her father or husband. He would in other words ask Edna’s husband to hand her over to him as a thing. When Robert explains to Edna her plan about common future, she completely loses her illusions about him and finds herself caught in a cage again. We can perceive the situation as one of Edna’s last awakenings. She awakens to reality after finding out that the central issue of Robert’s relationship to her is the problem of ownership. His idea is to shift the ownership of Edna between him and her husband. It is not enough for Robert to love one another and be together. He wants Edna to become his wife, he wants to own her. This, for Edna absolutely unacceptable proposal, devastates her and means a release of all her illusions.
The other person contributing to Edna’s decision to kill herself is her “mother-woman” friend Adele. It seems symbolical that Edna leaves Robert in order to be with Adele during her childbirth. The childbirth is described by Edna as a torture which takes her back to reality and makes her think of children.
With an inward agony, with a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature, she witnessed the scene of torture. She was still stunned and speechless with emotion when later she leaned over her friend to kiss her and softly say good-bye. Adele, pressing her cheek, whispered in an exhausted voice: “Think of the children, Edna. Oh, think of the children! Remember them!”(111).
As has already been said many times, Edna has never been a traditional mother-woman. Independent awakened Edna considers motherhood “the soul’s slavery” (48) And therefore the experience of delivery showed her again and very intensively how much different from other women she is when ignoring her responsibility to husband and children and when looking only for her own identity and content. Contemplating Adele’s words, Edna tries to think of children, however, she is not able to sacrifice herself, to deny her self and give up her independence. She remains faithful to her awakenings even if she it means to give up her life. As she said at Grand Isle, “I would give up money, I would give up my life for my children; but I would not give up myself” (48). To sacrifice her life is easier way for her than to come back to her husband and pretend to be a caring mother.
Robert’s good-bye notes mean no future for their love. For Edna it means no future at all. Through Robert’s cowardly escape, Edna’s decision to kill herself seems to be completed. There seem to be only two ways how to solve Edna’s complicated situation-either to die or to capitulate. Edna is a fighter and rebel who rather dies but wins than gives up and lives.
Nevertheless, the opinions on Edna’s final decision vary. Her suicide is praised as well as blamed, commands sympathy as well as disapproval, marks victory as well as defeat. One can see Edna’s ultimate decision as a manifestation of her courage to stay herself at all cost, the other can perceive it as a weakness of a desperate woman who has lost a meaning of life.
Perception of death is highly individual and influenced by many factors. Some people even live to die because they see the promise of better conditions in afterlife life.
Ultimately we want death: ‘A febrile unrest within us asks death to wreak its havoc at our expense.’ And we want it because ‘the luxury of death is regarded by us in the same way as that of sexuality; first as a negation of ourselves, then – in a sudden reversal – as a profound truth of that movement of which life is the manifestation’ (Bataille qut. in Dollimore 255).
I understand Edna’s suicide as completing her awakening, returning to the beginning as if the circle was closing up. Awakened Edna returned to where she came from. She decided to give up everything but not to deceive her self, so seems to have no other choice than to end her life when she wants to be true to herself. Some critics interpret Edna’s suicide as her final rebellion against the society. I am not in agreement with this opinion because I think that the description of the last scene pictures Edna as a silent, meditating and contemplating woman, not as somebody who is determined to show to everybody her strength.