A “Beautiful” Suicide:
The Problematic Death of Edna Pontellier
Her lungs were filling with water. She felt weak and numb as the dark, immense body of water consumed her. She was part of its strong current; once again she was a possession of another. She felt weightless as the heavy burden of her restrictive society floated to the surface and her body sunk deeper and deeper. She opened her mouth to speak, but only bubbles came out. She could no longer communicate, but she was often forced to keep her feelings inside. Her chest began to burn, but it was no different than the fiery rage she felt confined to her domestic duties. She had left all that behind her, but she was still alone, just her and the ocean. Edna closed her eyes and gave herself away completely to the vast gulf.
Edna Pontellier is the main character in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. Through her interactions in Grande Isle and her home in New Orleans, the audience quickly sees how restricted and unhappy Edna is in her role as mother and wife. She feels thwarted and unable to grow as a person in her role as a woman. I first met Edna in my junior year of high school. It was not her story that immediately captivated me, but rather the way my teacher described her death as “a beautiful suicide.” She felt that Edna was at peace and that all was well. However, I was disturbed by the way we were learning about an incident where a woman took her own life. This novel finds itself the readings lists in multiple schools for AP Language and AP Literature students. Although fictional in nature, I saw a problem in the way impressionable adolescents were being taught about this text.
Chopin creates Edna to be a complex character, often preoccupied in solitude, contemplating life and her innermost thoughts and desires. Edna is written to be self-aware, our eyes and ears to the restricted world she lives in. According to Joyce Dyer, a writer of nonfiction and memoirs, “[Edna] senses, even in the earliest stages of her awakening, that a woman’s identity as a human being is more important and essential than her role as a mother” (100). However, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, an author of highly acclaimed biographies and other nonfiction work, believes Edna’s actions reflect more than her response to feeling possessed by one man but about how an entire “shaping culture has, in general, refused her right to speak out freely” (“Un-Utterable Longing”). It is more than Edna feeling trapped in her roles. She feels, as many real women during the time had, that she cannot do anything to change the way things are. Therefore, to escape the imprisonment of the late nineteenth century Creole society and the rigid gender roles expected of women during the time, Edna drowns herself. In her novel, The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s character, Edna, commits suicide to finally gain her own personal freedom. The emphasis on praising Edna’s actions and calling her character courageous is problematic, however, and we should understand that her actions should not translate to contemporary society.
Having Edna’s death create closure for her character is one reason her suicide is troubling. Edna’s character is so unhappy in her life and in her roles. She hates being a mother, she despises her marriage to a man she does not love, and she feels unfulfilled living in a society where women are not expected to do much. For Edna, her only way to escape this life is to no longer live at all. Chopin creates an ending scene that emphasizes rebirth, writing, “How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (254). Standing naked in a body of water during her death scene, Chopin makes a connection between birth and death, creating a full cycle that the author makes feel pure and beautiful. Dyer acknowledges this rebirth, arguing that, “in refusing to live without it, refusing to yield to the philosophy of motherhood that informed and directed her age, she ironically is reborn and, in a sense, gives birth to greater human possibility for women in the century to come” (101). I disagree with this statement, however, because through death, Edna is not attaining anything. Chopin does not have the protagonist reach a beginning but the end of her life in this physical world; there is no longer room for self-exploration or personal growth. Dyer sees the sea as important in the symbolism of beginning of “selfhood,” “a new century,” and “self-understanding” (114). Edna does reach an awakening on the journey to find herself, but she does not actively change anything. Through death, Chopin does not have her fix anything for a future society of women. Her death is not an enlightening symbol of new beginnings but a depressing action as Edna is never be able to find actual happiness while alive.
Edna’s suicide is also problematic because it is not courageous but cowardly. Edna takes actions into her own hands in the belief that she is doing something bold and empowering. Chopin creates a friend for Edna, who strongly influences her and many of her decisions. The author writes, “How Mademoiselle Reisz would have laughed, perhaps sneered, if she knew! ‘And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must posses the courageous soul that dares and defies” (Chopin 255). Chopin’s character believes that her friend would want her to push herself and act defiantly to finally reach true happiness. However, in death, she could not resolve anything. Edna is only acting in self-interest.
In the story’s first review it was concluded that, “the woman who did not want anything but her own way drowned herself” (Toth 220). Published in the St. Louis Republic, she was also referred to as “foolish” (Toth 220). I do believe Chopin creates an intelligent character, for she is not carefree but always curious and pondering inside her head. I can empathize with why Chopin chooses to have Edna act the way she did, but I agree with the original review that it is selfish to leave her husband, kids and friends behind. Although she does not fit in with her society and they will never understand her unfulfilled wants and needs, they care for her very much. It is understandable that she feels limited in society but Chopin does not have her fix anything that bothered her. Dyer writes, “Only at the end of the novel does Edna find the courage to accept and acknowledge her solitary state” (108). She believes Edna iss dauntless when she was described as feeling “absolutely alone” (Chopin 256). Although she defies her society by putting her values before society’s values, she does not actively change anything. When she dies, the world is just as she left it and she is just as unhappy. In his book Surviving Literary Suicide, Jeffrey Berman quotes that a feminist at the time, Dorothea Dix, “[had] no sympathy for male suicide. Rather, she reserves her compassion for women, who stoically bearing their hardships, rarely commit suicide” (48) It is problematic to create a double standard for the suicide of men and women; one cannot be cowardly while the other is courageous. Edna’s actions are not any less cowardly than a man fleeing from his problems. To be audacious would be to act out against the problems in society.
We learn that Edna is more fortunate than many women at the time when she says, “I have a little money of my own from my mother’s estate, which my father sends me by driblets. I won a large sum this winter on the races, and I am beginning to sell my sketches,” (Chopin 174). In the eyes of Virginia Woolf, Edna could successfully live in the house she buys around the corner from her husband’s property and pursue her interest in art or leave room for other intellectual growth. Woolf wrote a a few years after Chopin, that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own,” exactly what Edna has (Woolf 1). One thing Woolf had not mentioned was children, but Edna already has nannies and nurses who take care of her children. Chopin writes Edna to be extremely fortunate compared to other women; she could therefore become an example and act out against her husband’s possessive clutches. Although scandalous, she could have broken away from the marriage to be with Robert whom she truly loved and felt passion for. It would have been brave to endure the status as a social pariah so that she could be content in her life. It might have been too daring, however, for Chopin to suggest such a taboo act for one of her characters. As much as Edna takes what would appear to some as the “easy way out” Chopin does the same as a writer.
Lastly, Edna’s suicide is problematic because in today’s society where mental illness is a serious topic, her death needs to be treated as one that is tragic and preventable. Jeffrey Berman cites that late nineteenth century reviewers see Edna’s suicide as a “threat to society rather than as a symptom of a person or interpersonal crisis” (Surviving 51). In the novel, Monsieur Pontellier sees that his wife is suffering. The doctor begins by asking “has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women‑ — super-spiritual superior beings” (Chopin 159). This is a direct reference to the feminist movement and Chopin makes a connection between those who are perceived as obscure and those who are feminists. It is no coincidence those who are seen as different and mentally disturbed are those like Edna who feel trapped, isolated, and alone in their roles as women. Then, instead of talking through what is wrong or receiving a treatment, like therapy, that is common today, Doctor Mandelet says, “Let your wife alone for a while” (Chopin 160). We understand now that a person would never be advised to leave a loved one alone while suffering from mental illness or addiction, but instead would build a support system to help them through the difficulties.
It is important to understand that Edna’s suicide could have been prevented if it existed today. We have all types of treatment and programs to help her find happiness and encourage her to make changes to aspects of her life that are holding her back. Some intellectuals go as far as to diagnose Edna with mental disorders. For example, Wolff suggests she might have schizoid personality disorder, saying “The schizoid personality consists of a set of defenses which have been established as an attempt to preserve some semblance of coherent identity” (“Thanatos and Eros”). Edna seems to fit some of the characteristics under the DSM 5, like the fact that she “neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family,” “almost always chooses solitary activities”, and “takes pleasure in few, if any, activities” (DSM-5). The audience can see how Edna prefers to be alone and does not have many close relationships in her community. However, although some of the puzzle pieces fit, the explanation for this behavior can be that she simply does not fit in and feel understood. She does not, however, “[show] emotional coldness, detachment, and flattened affectivity” but needs emotional intimacy like the kind she receives from her dear friend, Mademoiselle Reisz or her love interest, Robert (DSM-5). But whether she suffers from a diagnosable disorder or suffered from situational depression, Edna’s death is tragic. When teaching this book, it is important to teach adolescents that Edna’s actions are not enviable. These students are encountering a time period when it is common to feel vulnerable and different; they may feel as though they connect with Edna’s feelings of isolation or solitude. It is important for teachers to talk with their students about the tragedy of Edna’s life and the alternative ways to feel happy and get closure for yourself if you are not content with your situation. The problem lies when “many of us who come to the book have found ourselves where Edna is, precisely on the brink of a personal beginning,” (Dyer 117). It is not appropriate to give the impression that suicide is the path one should take for a new beginning. Jeffrey Berman wrote about teaching The Awakening in the classroom and had a student who “was feeling anxious and depressed…because of the novels we had just read (Risky Writing 242). He continues, “The Awakening and The Bell Jar unexpectedly reminded her of the depression she experienced five years earlier” (Risky Writing 242). Many people feel comforted by the idea of relating to someone else’s feelings and struggles but it becomes problematic if he or she decides to act on those feelings like Edna did. It is important to understand that Chopin created Edna. She is a fictional character who should not be emulated but rather a way for readers to learn from her hardships and personal struggles in how to deal with those in their own lives.
In conclusion, Edna’s suicide is problematic because it creates a sense of closure for her character, implies that her actions are courageous, and undermines the seriousness of taking one’s own life. Contemporary scholars need to understand that her actions are not relevant to today’s society and Edna should not be used as a role models for social movements, like feminism. Edna’s death is important to the story, however. Chopin writes Edna the way she believes her protagonist would have acted if she were real. Chopin writes, “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did…But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was too late” (Toth and Seyersted 296). In her restrictive society, Chopin portrays Edna as feeling that death is her only option. To escape her confinement, she feels like this is the courageous action that could finally allow her freedom. Today, woman thankfully have a lot more freedom. Many people who are unhappy have options at their disposal to reach an appropriate level of contentment. This novel gives the reader a glimpse into the past and as an early feminist text, allows our contemporary society an opportunity to avoid repeating history.
It was an exciting and thought-provoking journey to write this essay. I first thought I wanted to write about a song centering around the artist overcoming her feelings of sadness and depression. However, when I faced difficulties finding commentary on this particular song and I was unsure in what to write about, I thought about the multitude of books I have read with characters facing a similar struggle. One text stood out, and that was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I had the opportunity to read this novel in my AP Language and Composition class in my junior year of high school. I was struck by the way my teacher regarded Edna’s death. For my her, it was like I mentioned in my essay, “a beautiful suicide.” She felt closure with the way Edna’s life had ended, but I had not. Now that I was assigned a second essay for this E110 course, I thought this would be a perfect topic to explore. I had so much I never got to learn about Edna a few years ago, and now I was given the opportunity. Through hours of research in the library, I was able to find a lot of insightful authors who wrote about Chopin and Edna. Through their writing, and through conversations surrounding death I facilitated with friends and family, I was able to form an opinion and began writing. I intended to captivate the author with the imagery used in my first paragraph. I then continue into explaining my topic in the second paragraph and transition into my arguments. I use quotes from Chopin and the other writers to help support my arguments and use their knowledge to better the understanding of the topic as a whole. I conclude with the idea that this novel is often taught in high school, like how I was exposed to it. I highlight the importance of regarding this book as fictional and to understanding the seriousness of suicide when teaching to impressionable adolescents who may also be experiencing sadness and isolation like Edna.
I would like to first thank my high school English teacher for introducing me to Edna Pontellier and Kate Chopin. It was her opinions on Edna’s suicide that were concerning and interested me enough years later to explore the topic further. While in her class, we were encouraged and motivated as students. It is clear that I felt the same way years later in my eagerness to further my studies on Chopin and her protagonist in college. I would also like to thank my group members, Kaylynn and Jihad. Kaylynn really helped target places in my piece that needed improvement. She praised my work and gave me the encouragement I needed to complete the next two drafts. Jihad also gave me insightful commentary, as did Tuan during our peer-editing time. I want to thank my mother for proof-reading the disarray that was the draft before the first official draft. She ensured me my arguments were clear and disregarded my doubts as a writer. I want to thank my friend, Marissa, for giving me suggestions in how to continue when I was experiencing a writer’s block. Through our heated discussions on what was problematic or appropriate in fictional deaths, I was able to better form an opinion on the subject, and was able to continue writing. Last but certainly not least, I want to thank my professor, Joseph Harris. From our lessons on Virginia Woolf towards the beginning of the semester, to exposure to other student writers like myself, I was able to gain a new perspective on writing. I have been introduced to very inspiring writers, like Woolf, and feel I have developed my own writing style that I feel comfortable with. I do not think I would be half the writer I am today if it were not for his encouragement and strong interest in our growth as students. Although my career plans for the future do not necessarily involve writing, I would like to be continuously exposed to brilliant writers and continue to explore my creativity through my love of reading and writing.
Berman, Jeffrey. Risky Writing: Self-disclosure and Self-transformation in the Classroom. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 231–255. Google Books. Web. April 16, 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=6DHaEuSMrZYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=risky+writing&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiB6cfMyYTMAhVCWh4KHWnvAb8Q6AEIHTAA — v=onepage&q=risky writing&f=false>.
Berman, Jeffrey. Surviving Literary Suicide. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 46–58. Google Books. Web. 16 Apr. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=TP4tqjou924C&printsec=frontcover&dq=surviving+literary+suicide&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwje5vPgyYTMAhWB7R4KHSe7Br8Q6AEIHTAA — v=onepage&q=surviving literary suicide&f=false>.
Chopin, Kate, and Marilynne Robinson. The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories. Toronto: Bantam, 1988.
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Dyer, Joyce. “Understanding Edna’s Suicide.” The Awakening, a Novel of Beginnings. New York: Twayne, 1993. 100–17. Print.
Toth, Emily. “Unveiling Kate Chopin.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Print.
Toth, Emily and Per Seyersted. Kate Chopin’s Private Papers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Thanatos and Eros: Kate Chopin’s the Awakening.” American Quarterly 25.4 (1973): 449–71. JSTOR. Web. 16 Apr. 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/2711633?ref=search-gateway:ad57468b5cf4a69ffde1b8ada322c925>.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in The Awakening.” Studies in American Fiction 24, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 3–22. Quoted as “Un-Utterable Longing: The Discourse of Feminine Sexuality in The Awakening” in Bloom, Harold, ed. The Awakening, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 16 Apr. 2016 < http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&WID=106526&SID=5&iPin=MCITA06&SingleRecord=True>.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Print.