The Death of the True Woman: Interpreting Suicide in The Awakening by Lori Fordham
There has been much discussion about Edna Pontellier’s suicide at the end of The Awakening. In his contribution to the discussion, William Nelles offers an explanation as to why she commits suicide, arguing that she is pregnant with Alcee Arobin’s child. He introduces this theory as an offshoot of class discussions and speculation of another critic, Manfred Malzahn (Nelles paras. 2-3). What Malzahn offers as an idea, Nelles expands into a close reading of the text that, while engaging and conceivable, seems somewhat simplistic. According to a study referenced by Jayanti Chotai, suicide is almost always complex (325). Margaret Higonnet states:
to take one’s life is to force others to read one’s death. For when we categorize a death,
we do not record a pure fact (if any such exist). Rather, we produce a reading that
depends upon the physical and subjective context: natural or unnatural death, homicide
or suicide. As with all human actions, we ask questions about free will and determinism.
In the case of suicide the hermeneutic task is particularly elusive. Only when the primary
evidence has been destroyed does the trace exist to be followed and interpreted.
Interpreters bring to the task different conceptions of the natural, different private and
Public aims or fears. (68)
While we may never be able to determine a single, defining reason for Edna Pontellier’s decision to end her own life, we may be able to answer some questions by framing her suicide with a discussion concerning the social constructions of the time as well as the location and method of her suicide.
The Nineteenth Century gave birth to the ideology known as The Cult of True Womanhood. According to Barbara Welter, “woman, in the cult of True Womanhood presented by women’s magazines, gift annuals and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage of the house. In a society where values changed frequently,…one thing at least remained the same—a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found” (151-152). In other words, The Cult of True Womanhood was widespread and upheld by the media sources which women frequently accessed. The ideology gave women, and their husbands and neighbors a societal guideline for judging their own behavior and the behavior of other women (Welter 152) and was “divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” (152), and all of these virtues appear at some point within Chopin’s text, helping to shape our view of Edna Pontellier’s interactions with her surroundings.
Piety, or religion, is the least evident in The Awakening; however, the way in which Chopin uses religion is important when showing the effect that The Cult of True Womanhood has on Edna. She attends church after her awakening, and “a feeling of oppression and drowsiness overcame [her] during the service. Her head began to ache, and the lights on the altar swayed before her eyes” (Chopin 57). Within The Cult of True Womanhood, “religion or piety was the core of a woman’s virtue… Young men looking for a mate were cautioned to search first for piety, for if that were there, all else would follow” (Welter 152). It was a woman’s role to remain pious in order to remind men of their own religious duty, and if a woman failed in this task, he husband suffered as well. Since piety entails such a large responsibility on the part of women, it is no wonder that Edna feels oppressed and tired. Chopin’s positioning of Edna’s church experience is telling as well. Edna does not make “an effort to regain her composure” (Chopin 57) and stay for the remainder of the service; she gets up and leaves. This is Edna’s second act of rebellion since her awakening—the first is her refusal to come to bed at her husband’s request—if, as Welter suggests, piety governs all other virtues in a True Woman, we can guess that Edna will soon reject the other tenants of this ideology in her attempt at autonomy.
Another of Chopin’s references to piety deals with the lady in black. She appears throughout the novel, “reading her morning devotions,” (37) and “counting her beads” (55). Although it is unclear if she is chaperoning the young lovers, she is usually mentioned in conjunction with them; in one scene, she “was following them at no close distance” (54) and later gains “steadily upon them” (55). These interactions hint at the intersection between piety and purity within The Cult of True Womanhood. Furthermore, Edna’s reactions to the Creole views on sexuality are considered “prudery” (31). Edna has internalized what it meant to be a True Woman so well that she cannot discuss childbirth and labor without becoming embarrassed.
Purity presented a complex problem within The Cult of True Womanhood: “woman must preserve her virtue until marriage and marriage was necessary for her happiness. Yet marriage was, literally and end to innocence” (Welter 158). Likewise, although pure women were supposed to be asexual beings, they were also expected to be mothers. A woman’s sexuality was dependant upon her husband’s needs, causing her to have no sexual identity of her own. Adèle Ratignolle must remind Robert Lebrun that Edna may take his advances seriously because she is not used to Creole society, in essence reserving Edna’s sexuality for her husband (Chopin 41).
Chopin weaves submissiveness and domesticity, the remaining tenants of The Cult of True Womanhood, into her novel mainly through descriptions of Adèle and the exposition of Léonces’ thoughts regarding his wife’s behavior. Domesticity is reflected mainly through motherhood in Chopin’s novel, and Adèle is the prime example of what Chopin refers to as a “mother-woman…it was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (29).
Adèle spends her summer making winter clothing for her children, which Edna cannot understand (30). Although she has been content to follow societal rules concerning piety and purity and it appears that her refusal to come to bed is the first time that she has not been submissive to her husband, Edna’s domestic skills are lacking, at least according to her husband:
It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define his own satisfaction or
anyone else’s wherein his wife had failed in her duty toward their children. It was
something he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without
subsequent regret and atonement. (29)
Furthermore, Léonce notes that the children do not look to their mother when they are hurt; they simply deal with the problem (29). Edna, however, sees that she fills her role as mother to the best of her ability. For example, when Léonce comes home and decides that one of the children has a fever, Edna assures him that the child did not have a fever when she put him to bed. Despite the fact that Edna had been with the children all day, and they were sound asleep when he comes home, Léonce insists that she must get up and sit up with the child, even though she knows he is not sick: “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?” (27). Although Edna takes care of her children, she does not obsess over them as directed The Cult of True Womanhood, and Léonce’s constant need to correct his wife’s behavior may actually lead to some of her ambivalence toward her children.
In an analysis of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, Mary Paniccia Carden links women with land, stating “in the romantic script of frontier violence, America was begotten by self-made men on the sometimes pliant, sometimes resistant, but always feminized wilderness”; furthermore, “equating nation-building with male sexual conquest, the romantic version of American history emphatically closes down women’s access to the scene of self-making by equating ‘woman’ with the ‘fair, blank page’ for male creativity, with the wilderness that men conquer, subdue, and transform” (par. 3). This link between man’s view of nature and man’s view of women, especially within The Cult of True Womanhood, is apparent in The Awakening as well. When he is present, Edna spends much of her time with Lebrun because, “whereas Léonce Pontellier thinks of land as a commodity to be exchanged for profit or to stand as a sign of material success, young Lebrun joins the heroine in appreciating the wondrousness of the island” (Radcliff-Umstead par.5).
While it is unlikely that Léonce will sell his wife for profit, there are several instances throughout the novel where the Pontellier’s marriage is more a reflection of status than a loving relationship. For example, when Edna appears, sun burnt, near the beginning of the novel, he comments on the situation, “looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (Chopin 24). Also, when Robert Lebrun teaches Edna to swim, and she questions whether she swims out far enough to be in danger, Léonce assures her “you were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you” (50). Finally, when Edna moves into the “pigeon house,” (108) he is not concerned that his wife might be having an affair; he is “simply thinking of his financial integrity” (116). In these instances, we view Edna in the same light as her husband’s other property: something to control and protect from damage to prove his monetary value to the rest of society.
The link between women and nature comes into play both during Edna’s awakening and her struggle for autonomy, which ultimately lead to her suicide, for her awakening and her death both occur in the same place, Grand Isle. Edna’s awakening takes place in the sea, which is important since water is repeatedly linked to the womb in this and other texts. In one particular example of hoe the womb/ water connection works within The Awakening, Douglas Radcliff-Umstead states “the ability to swim does not come easily to [Edna], and she often thrashes about in the waves like a clumsy infant lacking basic motor skills” (par.24). Radcliff-Umstead’s analysis echoes Chopin’s own word choice as she compares Edna’s learning to swim to a baby learning to walk: “she was like the tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers” (49). In learning of her powers, Edna comes to see herself as a subject rather than an object, and as a result rebels against any societal controls that challenge this view. For example, she abandons her calling day, takes a lover known for ruining women’s reputations, and sells her art to gain enough money to move from her husband’s house, all things which a True Woman would never consider.
While it is important that Edna’s awakening occurs in the water, it is equally significant that it occurs at a vacation spot for wealthy families during the summer. Although Chopin has several descriptions of nature which are unaltered by man throughout her text, when she describes the beach where Edna learns to swim, she does so by listing the people on the beach—mainly wives and children—as well as the bathhouse and the sunshades that cover the beach. Also, as Welker points out, women waited at home for their husbands while the men went out and worked so that the men had something to look forward to while they were gone (151). Throughout the summer, the men come and go from Grand Isle while the women stay behind. The women are linked to the land in that they, like the land, are something to be enjoyed by the men at their convenience. In essence, Edna awakens to her sexuality in a place representative of the fact that her sexuality is not her own.
The link between Grand Isle and women’s bodies, especially Edna’s, is fully realized before she ends her life. The beach is, for the most part, deserted, and it is in the absence of man that Chopin offers a description of nature:
The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the
sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring,
inviting the soul to wander in the abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and
down, there was no living thing in sight. (138)
Edna can only become aware of herself in the absence of society’s ideology concerning the proper behavior for women, just as she can only become aware of nature when it is unconstructed by man. Edna finds her bathing suit and puts it on, only to “cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her” when she is “absolutely alone” (138). This final rejection of a man-made object before she ends her life reflects her earlier statement that “I’m not going to be forced into doing things” (134).
Historically, suicide was viewed as masculine, a sign of bravery or honor. By the eighteenth century, however, society viewed suicidal behavior as something that needed to be cured (Higonnet 70). At the time, “scientific literature perceived woman as an abnormal man” (70); since suicide was also seen as abnormal, societies started to view it as a feminine behavior. By the nineteenth century, many male writers dealt with women’s suicide “as a virtually involuntary form of surrender to social forces…By contrast, both in fact and in literature women perceive their own suicides in ways that could be described as visionary rather than violent” (78).
Despite this idea, Walter Taylor and Jo Ann B. Fineman argue that, by attending Adèle’s labor, Edna “realizes that she cannot find a loving attachment” to her children because her own mother is dead (par. 24). Because she is “shocked into a regressive state, Chopin’s Edna commits suicide mechanically” (par. 25). This reading of the text ignores the fact that Edna claims autonomy even with her death in that the method she chooses does not fit into typical suicidal behavior. To begin with, drowning suicides exhibit seasonally, often occurring in the summer, when people have more access to water or when they perceive that they have more access to water (Ajdacic-Gross, et al. pars. 21-22). Edna commits suicide in the spring before the vacation season starts. She does not allow society to dictate her access to water; she creates it herself. Rebecca S. Spicer and Ted R. Miller state that, in a study relating demographics to methods employed in attempted and completed suicides, “suicide methods varied in lethality, as measured by case fatality. Firearms, drowning, and suffocation/hanging were the most lethal” and “men were more likely than women to choose the 3 most lethal methods” (1886). The fact that Edna chooses drowning indicates that she wants control over whether her actions become an attempted or a completed suicide.
Because she is embedded in The Cult of True Womanhood, it is possible to view Edna’s death as her final domestic failure. The context of this ideology also makes Taylor and Fineman’s analogy that her death is passive seem likely. However, if we read her death symbolically, we can interpret it as a message about The Cult of True Womanhood. Since Edna attends Adèle’s labor after her awakening, it seems unlikely that her horrified reaction comes from the same place as her earlier reactions to sexuality. It is possible that Edna views Ad èle’s labor as something powerful and is overwhelmed by the experience. At this point, she also has an awareness that, within The Cult of True Womanhood, women are not allowed to own this type of power. She is a woman who does not represent the sexual norms of The Cult of True Womanhood who ends her life in a place associated with the womb, indicating that, in order for women to be powerful, they must be allowed to express all aspects of their experience, including the sexual the maternal. That Edna’s attempt to merge these to facets of her life ends in death indicates that she lives in a society where this merging is not possible.
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