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The Ending Of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

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It took me a few minutes to process the ending of The Awakening. I found it very powerful. Suicide was one of the outcomes I’d predicted – I came to see there were two ways it could go: Edna capitulating and giving in, going back to being a mother, or ending her life. I couldn’t not analyse it; here is my explanation.

The sheer force of what Chopin is saying about the western world is just as powerful now. And we have more choices in our day and age. There’s divorce, there’s the choice to remain child-free, there’s a social regard for mothers to have free time and for fathers to play their part.

There’s no way around the fact Edna kills herself – we may not see the final scene but Chopin makes it clear Edna can’t go back to the shore. She’s chosen to swim out to sea until she’s too exhausted to get back and only momentarily regrets her decision before being okay with it again. We read no more than that; indeed to witness the death itself whether detailed or summarised would be to lessen its impact.

What there is then is the question: why does Edna kill herself? Has she given up on life now Robert’s run off scared? Is she thus feeling hopeless, unloved? Or is the decision one of rebellion? One of power, a break for final, true, freedom? The success of the book rests on the answers.

To say that Edna was hopeless would be to negate the rest of what Chopin does for the story. Chopin has spent the whole book going against the grain – to show Edna as weak at the end would be to give in to her, Chopin’s, society. Would the critics have been so angry if Edna was weak? Maybe – we only know so much, that they were against a woman going against propriety. But including weakness would be to say that in the context of her era, Edna was a silly woman. Certainly her husband considered her ill.

There is a reason Chopin could’ve killed Edna due to weakness – to show how bad things were, what she was up against, powerless to do anything about. But that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book, so is it plausible to look at Chopin and see this as a true possibility? We should consider Chopin’s situation at the time of writing – the widow, for several years by this point, of a husband she liked; she would have seen both sides of female life – 1800s marriage, and freedom.

So then: freedom. Is Edna’s suicide her final attempt to gain freedom, the lasting, definite way, she knows will work? This is where the symbolism of the sea is important, both the sea as written in the story and the sea as a general concept. The sea gives life and takes it – it is the catalyst to Edna’s awakening and the way she gains freedom. The sea goes beyond the horizon – Edna still fondly remembers her time in the meadow as a child, that horizon. And by swimming into that sea which brought so much happiness, she is in a way swimming into her happiness, no matter that Robert isn’t there with her. Edna knows that there is no way she can keep living as she desires – her husband will return, society will be unhappy, she will have to sell her house or share it with her family, and in no way could she keep up her affair with Alcee. But she can renounce it all and make a lasting decision that no one can stop her making.

Edna’s suicide is sad, no two ways about it. She reaches towards freedom and attains it but it’s not a freedom we can be glad about, even if we admire her strength. But it says a lot about the impossibility of her time and how things were, the differences today.


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