Re-Thinking Re-readings of “The Awakening”

Last class we discussed at length Edna Pontellier’s final act in The Awakening.  In particular the debate revolved around what options, if any, Edna had outside of suicide.  Was her suicide courageous or cowardly?  Could she have remained loyal to her sense of her awakening self and still be part of society?  Some of us argued that there were historical precedents of women, George Eliot, for example, violating social conventions and norms while living full lives.  Others of us suggested that, given Leonce Pontellier’s “ownership” of Edna, of their children and of all her property, freedom, outside of the freedom of death, was simply not an option.  I argued that ultimately Kate Chopin forecloses the notion of other options by not providing (much) evidence for them in the novel.  Edna chooses the only real option that Kate Chopin gives her.

While an author relinquishes control over the novel as soon as it is published, the reader’s interpretation of the motives and actions of a character are circumscribed by the words on the page.  A reader may be tempted to envision changes for a favorite story, and that’s the reader’s prerogative – and one of the joys of reading – but at that point the reader is creating fan-fiction.  The limitations created by the word on the page apply equally, it should be noted, to authors and readers.  J. K. Rowling may tell fans that Dumbledore is gay, but in the novels he is neither gay nor straight – he’s asexual.  Rowling (quite reasonably) decided to ignore the sexuality of all of her professors at Hogwarts.  Readers, and perhaps Rowling herself, forget that these characters do not magically exist outside the margins of the page.

That said, there is nothing wrong with fan-fiction, and a reader’s creative collaboration with the author’s world can enrich the reader’s appreciation for the text.  So permit me to invite you to speculate about how Edna’s death would be read by the surviving characters.  Like readers encountering a text for the first time, Leonce, Robert, Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle encounter Edna’s body (or, at very least, the fact of her death) for the first time, and must interpret it.   Several interpretations offer themselves:

  • Leonce, Robert and the other men who took satisfaction in “teaching” Edna to swim may feel that she did not learn well enough. In this reading, she goes for an innocent swim, and over-confident in her newly acquired skills, she goes too far, and without the “protective” male gaze, succumbs to the waves.
  • Leonce may see Edna’s death as a validation of his visit to see Doctor Mandalet. He might reason that her sexual proclivities AND her suicide are symptoms of her “mental illness”.
  • Robert, by contrast, might interpret Edna’s suicide as either the despairing act of a jilted woman or an attempt at exacting revenge on him. He might reasonably conclude that had he not broken off their relationship, Edna would still be alive.  Edna’s death thus becomes, not about her, but about him.
  • Mademoiselle Reisz might see Edna’s suicide as a sign of weakness. After all, she had warned Edna earlier, “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.” The “sad spectacle” of Edna’s drowning means that she was a “weakling,” unlike Mademoiselle Reisz.
  • By contrast, Madame Ratignolle, might view Edna’s suicide as a sign of strength.  “Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” she told Edna.  Through her death, Edna preserves the reputation of her family for her children.

None of these explanations exist within the story itself.  After all, as far as the reader is concerned, once Edna dies, the other characters die, too.  We can envision what we like for the other characters – Madame Ratignolle might murder her children and husband and run-off with Mademoiselle Reisz; in a fit of guilt Leonce might commit suicide; Robert might renounce women and go on to become a priest.  All of these futures, and infinite others, are possibilities – but not possibilities in the pages of The Awakening.

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

One thought on “Re-Thinking Re-readings of “The Awakening””

  1. I agree with everything Mike says here about confining our interpretation of Edna’s act based upon the text itself. Our understanding of Edna’s choices remain limited to the options Chopin gives her in the novel; woman can be either Madame Ratignolle or Mademoiselle Reisz. Our speculation beyond the pages, even our own understanding of the world at that time, operates as fan-fiction indeed.

    As far as speculation as to other characters potential reactions to Edna’s death, some scholars speculate that the reason Edna chooses drowning as the means for her death is the first option that Mike proposes; it can be viewed as an accident. If her suicide was seen as a suicide, her children would be stigmatized. The notion of madness within their family would haunt them and damage their future prospects. The drowning then allows Leonce and society to write off her death as a careless act of a woman who tried to swim and didn’t possess the strength to do so (without a man there). A sad accident indeed.

    Other scholars argue (quite convincingly) that the readers assume that Edna dies. Chopin never actually describes the death, as Chopin leaves us with Edna walking/swimming unceasingly into the sea. The ambiguous ending of “not quite dead yet” operates in other works by Chopin, namely “Desiree’s Baby.” This sort of ambiguity was very unusual in writing of the time. Here is a link to one article, “Surviving Edna” that argues just this case: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/College-Literature/62990386.html

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s