Ways of Interpreting Edna's Suicide: What the Critics Say
Neal Wyatt, Virginia Commonwealth University

There are many ways of looking at the suicide, and each offers a different perspective. It is not necessary that you like the ending of the novel, but you should come to understand it in relation to the story it ends. One way to come to terms with her death is to construct a different ending. How would you have ended the story? What would you have Edna do? Would you have her reconcile with her husband? Have Robert stay with her and they be lovers? Have her divorce her husband and marry Robert? Have her move away from New Orleans and live alone? Have her do this, but with a chosen lover? These options are just some of the paths Edna could have followed.

Try to fit your ending into one of these categories: she can be with her lover (in any manner she wishes), she can be married (to a man of her choice), she can live alone. Each of the first two hypothetical endings would betray the point of the novel. Edna does not awaken to sex. She is liberated and does become a very sensual woman, but it is not to sexual expression that she wakens. Therefore, all options involving a lover fall short of fulfilling the meaning of her awakening. If she remains married or marries another, this would put her back (in terms of Webb) at the start of her circle: all the learning and struggling would be for naught. She would once again be a man's possession. Before rejecting the idea that marriage is equivalent to ownership in the world of the novel, remember how Robert speaks to her about their future together. He does not see her living an awakened life with him; he sees her leading the traditional life of a wife with him. The final option is the most difficult to reject. It would be nice to imagine her living and painting alone in a small house somewhere far away from New Orleans. This is not a real option: to see why, think back to the text. Who lives their life this way in the novel? Mademoiselle Reisz does. Is that life shown to be exemplary? No, by portraying Mlle. Reisz in the way Chopin does, she is instructing the reader that Mademoiselle's life is not one to which Edna should aspire.

The fact that readers do not like the ending, that they struggle to make sense of it, is reflected in the body of criticism on the novel: almost all scholars attempt to explain the suicide. Some of the explanations will make more sense to you than others. By reading them you will come to a fuller understanding of the end of the novel (and in the process the entire novel) and hopefully make the ending less disappointing.

Joseph Urgo reads the novel in terms of Edna learning to narrate her own story. He maintains that by the end of the novel she has discovered that her story is "unacceptable in her culture" (23) and in order to get along in that culture she must be silent. Edna rejects this muting of her voice and would, Urgo maintains, rather "extinguish her life than edit her tale" (23). To save herself from an ending others would write or an ending that would compromise what she has fought to obtain, she has to write her own end and remove herself from the tale. As she swims out, the voices of her children come to pull at her like little "antagonists," and there are others on shore who would also hold her down: Robert, Adele, Arobin, and Leonce. Edna finds a way to elude them all, and narrates in her suicide the conclusion to her tale. In this type of reading, her suicide can be understood in terms of societal pressure. What is the result of silencing a person's voice? Urgo maintains, on a symbolic level, that it is equivalent to death. Symbolism made real by the ending of the novel.

Peggy Skaggs' reading of Edna's suicide is one of despair. Edna had awakened, found her selfhood, only to have that process and victory denied by Robert. His wanting her to be his "mother-woman," his wife with all the social conventions in place, denies her identity. Edna could not face this reality and chose not to exist if existence meant living in the societal cage in which all men wanted her to reside. Her life has become inseparable from the role her husband, lover, and society choose for her. Her identity is intertwined with the maternal nature that others decree should be her world. She has been denied by her father, husband, and Robert, the right to be what she wishes, and must place her sense of self inside their roles. Edna cannot do this, her sense of self was too hard won, too important to her now, to accept the role of wife and mother alone. As Skaggs' points out, "Edna's sense of self makes impossible her role of wife and mother as defined by her society; yet she comes to the discovery that her role of wife and mother also makes impossible her continuing sense of independent selfhood" (364). So as she walks into the water and swims away from the shore she thinks of "Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul." Margit Stange explores the same idea of motherhood but sees it in terms of ownership. She believes that when Edna witnessed Adele's labor, she came to understand "extreme maternal giving" (117) and that this giving, a form of ownership, is what she wanted to avoid. The suicide reversed the exchange; by taking her life, withholding motherhood, she owns herself again.

George Spangler addresses the issue from a different perspective, not why she killed herself but would she have? He thinks that the action was inconsistent and inappropriate. He believes that after Edna overcame so much, demonstrated such strength of will and determination, she would not let something like Robert's incomprehension of her advances push her into a state of suicidal despair. Portales takes issue with Spangler and points out the very undetermined nature of Edna's personality. He maintains that the suicide is not surprising and is in keeping with Edna's desire not to think of the consequences of her actions or about her future. From these examples, Portales contends that Edna's suicide is a result of her desire not to think of the consequences because those consequences are so unattractive. She does not want to be like Adele, Mrs.Highcamp, or Mlle. Reisz. She does not want to live with Leonce or Arobin, or even with Robert. She wants an undefined, unexpressed, ineffable life that she cannot articulate or shape. Rather than live one of these options, or live a life that society dictates, "Edna chooses to live self-forgetfully in the moment. In following this unexpressed creed, Edna knowingly places herself in a position where the consequences of her swimming out are inescapable; her final act simply cannot be obviated" (Portales, 436).

Manfred Malzahn offers two interesting reasons for Edna's suicide: that she was becoming mentally unbalanced or that she was carrying Arobin's child. These are two very different reasons and few other critics have even suggested the second option. Malzahn offers some thoughtful evidence for the first and suggests a reason for the second. Edna does behave in erratic ways, in one passage stomping on her wedding ring, and in another feeling sorry that her husband is leaving for New York. She behaves in an inappropriate manner at the dinner party when she practically falls apart when Victor sings Robert's song. There are also several passages where she contends she has inner thoughts or secret ideas, which when viewed in this manner, could be construed as a step toward mental illness. Additional support for this position can be gathered from the many times Edna is described as giving up all ideas of reality and abandoning herself to fate.

The pregnancy idea is harder to prove. She was sleeping with Arobin and there is no mention of birth control. Malzahn arrives at this pregnancy idea based on Edna's reaction to Adele's labor - remember that she was horrified. The memory of the pain of her own labor had faded, until seeing Adele recalls it. Therefore, Edna revolts against nature by "destroying herself as a means of procreation" (38).

Marina Roscher takes a Jungian approach to Edna's death by examining her psyche. In this she agrees somewhat with Malzahn [and the others] and suggests that Edna was immature, "often unclear about her own feelings, motives, and morals. She acted on impulse rather than forethought. The dreamlike maze in which her thinking was trapped only here and there evolved into patterns" (291). Her approach provides one answer to the question, why did Edna behave that way all the time, especially why did she not try to change her life in a positive way? According to Roscher, because she was starved for love as a child she grew into a woman who fell in love with unattainable men. The reason she was starved for love was that her father was a pathetic excuse for a man, who harassed his wife into her grave and did not offer love to his daughters. In Jungian psychology the idea of an animus, inner-self, is defined by a girl's father with "unarguable convictions" (295) that reside in the girl's inner-mind. Remember that Edna often mentions her own inner feelings. The animus, at its lowest form, becomes personified. Jung also believed that dreams or incidents in youth are often foreshadowing of future events. He also believes that they should provoke fear and that a lack of fear is abnormal. Edna's animus is the naked man on the rock, looking out to sea while a bird flies away (click here). Her fearless memory is walking through the ocean-like fields of grass. According to Roscher, she behaves the way she does because her childhood prevented any emotional connection. She could not tell Leonce what was wrong, so to bring peace to her animus, she committed suicide.

Helen Emmitt approaches Edna's death from a male/female point of view. She believes that women commit suicide, especially by drowning, because the world lacks a proper "reflection of women's needs and desires" (317). She contends that Edna's suicide was the "ultimate act of the novel, and as a culmination, solves [her] problems and fulfills [her] needs" (317), the drowning is read as a liberation from the cage of marriage, societies' rules, and family. For a woman who was searching for love, she gets the "engulfing attention she craves" (317) by diving under the waves.

She does not view Edna's death as a real suicide, because suicide has as a prerequisite the taking of one's life into one's hands and Edna never did this, she never made a conscious choice. "Suicide rights [a] tentative balance; it is an assertion of the will not to be swept away" (317). Throughout the novel, Edna is swept away (refer back to Portale's section for examples). So why does Edna swim out to her death according to Emmitt? Because she was in search of that proper reflection and found it in the sea. For men, water is self-reflecting, giving back a narcissistic image, but for women, who have no proper reflections, the sea is an embrace of self-fulfillment. Emmitt reads The Awakening as a parable of "female development and liberation" (320-21). She has seen the choices in her life and runs from them: Adele, Mlle. Reisz, and the woman at the dinner party, the regal woman who rules (see Aphrodite and Psyche). She runs to the ocean, an entity that has been seducing her throughout the novel, and that is the perfect lover, "speaking to the soul while caressing the body" (321). She was not acting on self-will, but instead acting as the woman in her story did (click here) traveling out to sea and never coming back. She wants to re-create her childhood images and adult fantasies, walking through a sea of Kentucky grass or riding out to sea with a lover, but she wants too much, "because to want at all is to ask too much, unless what [is wanted] is a traditional marriage, the happy ending . . . novels [allow] for a woman" (329). She does not want this so she escapes into the embrace of a long-remembered idyllic lovers arms and dies.

Joyce Dyer concentrates upon the maternal aspects of the novel, and sees these as the cause of the suicide. Edna visits her children and sees Adele's labor prior to learning that Robert has left her. It is the motherhood element, more than his betrayal that leads to her death. Edna has said that she will give up her life but not her essence for her children, and that is the crux of the issue. "She sees no way for a mother to keep the freedom of her soul - no way, that is, except to dissolve her attachment to her children" (101). Edna understands that what is expected is for her to give up her life for her children: society means this figuratively; Edna acts on it literally. She "cannot reconcile her responsibility to her two young sons with her responsibilities to herself . . . She chooses not to live in a world that forces her to value herself first as a mother and second as a human being" (17). Edna understands that her actions will impact her children and she will not allow that. During the novel, Edna is at best an affectionate but vague mother, but by cycling through some examples, it is clear that Edna thinks about the importance of her children at the same time she realizes what their attachment means to her selfhood, "Motherhood and selfhood were incompatible in Edna's century, and in some ways . . . incompatible in Edna herself . . . the moral implications of her role are so deeply a part of Edna's psyche that there is no way to remove them, except through death" (103).

The fact that suicides were the "craze," an expected Victorian convention, of the time would offer one extra-textual reason for her death. Female heroines were being killed off in major literary works during the eighteen hundreds, and especially popular were women who killed themselves. It is a standard retribution for women who commit adultery. Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in 1857 and his heroine, Emma, killed herself after a story much like Edna's. The Awakening has been termed a 'Creole Bovary' by some. In 1875, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy was published; Anna throws herself under a train after an ill-fated romance. Maggie Tulliver, in Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, actually drowns herself. That novel was published in 1860. In 1891, Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Tess was killed after she committed an act colored with suicidal intent.

As to the "why" of drowning in particular, Elaine Showalter points out in "Tradition and the Female Talent," that drowning conjures up the similarities between "femininity and liquidity." Women's bodies are "prone to wetness, blood, milk, tears, and amniotic fluid, so in drowning the woman is immersed in the feminine organic element" (52). Therefore, for Edna who had once found liberation in the sea, drowning brings her back inside herself.

Neal Wyatt (1995)  [contact at nwyatt@leo.vsla.edu]
Kate Chopin Study Text