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.