In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Edna, the protagonist, is unsatisfied with her current life and her marriage. Throughout the novel we see Edna become more and more independent and fall for a young man named Robert. Edna begins to spend her days away from her husband L©once and her three children, and she struggles with the limitations of married life. At the end of the novel, Edna goes out to swim and drowns in the ocean. The final scene leaves the question of whether Edna drowns or commits suicide. The ambiguity in the ending of The Awakening focuses the story on the circumstances of Edna’s unhappiness, rather than opening the character and story up to judgement and suggesting the responsibility for Edna’s unhappiness is mental illness, rather than her common but difficult life circumstances. Chopin’s novel explores these difficulties and Edna’s unhappiness as reasonable and leads to questions about the ways in which society views the position of women.
Edna’s death is left open-ended. Has Edna commited suicide or has she just swam out too far and drowned. The book does not make her seem ill which is why the ending is such a surprise to the reader. It is made known that Edna is unhappy, but the reader can not anticipate that she would commit suicide. The novel tries to portray her death as accidental saying, but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone (Chopin 116). Edna’s death seems almost as surprising to her as it does to the reader, yet Chopin makes her also particularly unhappy in this moment. There was no one thing in the world that she desired, Chopin writes before listing how Edna recognizes she will eventually no longer desire Robert, and that she sees her children as antagonists who had overcome her (115). This suggests Edna is unhappy, but then, immediately following, Chopin writes She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach (115). The text notices her unhappiness, and then suggests that unhappiness is not important to Edna at that moment. The narrative makes us pay attention to something that Edna does not.
This difficulty of these elements in the ending were noted by critic George Spangler who argued that the ending’s great fault is inconsistent characterization, which asks the reader to accept a different and diminished Edna from the one developed so impressively before (223 Spangler). Spangler observes that until this moment in the novel, strength and determination are what have defined Edna’s character. Now, at the end, her character seems weak and not determined in any way. She is not even particularly determined to die. Nevertheless, Chopin has consciously given Edna this ending. It must have felt sensible to her.
Arguing that the ending is weak avoids confronting the larger questions of the novel: Why is Edna unhappy? And what is the cause of that unhappiness? If Edna is weak, she can be seen as ill. If she is too strong, then she can be argued to have enough power to change her life. Edna existed in a world where women who misbehaved or were overly emotional were judged to be sick, often to be suffering from hysteria. The story of The Awakening was written and takes place at the end of the Victorian era at the beginning of modern, Freudian psychology, which still considered that hysterical women are unable to live a mature relationship (Tasca et al 114). If Edna is seen as overly emotional, her plight might be dismissed. In fact, the text indicates that Edna was concerned about her place in society. Early on, in Chapter IV, Edna’s isolation from other women is emphasized. Chopin characterizes her as not a mother-woman and separates her from her peers noting, The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle (Chopin 11). Chopin continues to depict her as an outcast expressing that Edna, though she had married a Creole, was not thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them (12).
Edna is unhappy and trapped. She cannot leave for Robert. She cannot simply choose to be somewhere else. Even if she managed to behave in such a way, it would seem more out of character than her eventual suicide. If she behaves in a way that could be judged harshly by society, Edna might wind up not only alone, but in an asylum. In the mid nineteenth century, women outnumbered male patients in mental asylums. This did nothing to help the rights of women and the popular consensus at the time was that women were more prone to diseases of the mind, notes Elisabeht Rakel in Women and Madness in the 19th Century . These apparent diseases of the mind were often used to diagnose insanity and commit women to asylums. As Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen concluded, The symptoms qualifying a woman’s need for admittance during these times would be considered controversial in the present day (Pouba and Tianen 95).
In this time which Edna lived, there was still a common idea that you could have a mental illness called hysteria. Because the majority of the people being diagnosed with hysteria were women, it was starting to seem as if it any women could just declare that she was going insane. This is what led doctors to believe that women admitted to Mendota Mental Asylum showed symptoms of insanity and next the doctors would examine their symptoms and later give a diagnosis that justified their insanity and stay at the hospital (98 Pouba). Some examples of these diagnoses of insanity include insane by religious matters, insane by abortion, and insane by heredity. This insanity that went on throughout The Awakening ‘s time period is not the way that Kate Chopin portrays Edna. Upon researching about the topic it leaves the reader inclined to believe that there is a possibility that Kate Chopin is showing the realness of mental illness in women in the nineteenth century. Although Edna may not be seen as being mentally ill, the other women consider her husband the greatest of them all, and it is hard to believe that Edna could be living such an unhappy life when it seems as if she has an abundance of freedom.
The question that determines whether she is mentally ill or not is: Was her unhappiness fair? The novel shows Edna having a hard time as a mother and a wife and being particularly unable to excel in these roles. Edna can be seen at her worst when Robert leaves to work in Mexico. The story shows Edna falling deeply in love with Robert, but she and the readers know that she will not be able to act on it because of her family and reputation. When Robert moves to Mexico she is noticeably upset and was receiving no happiness from being with her family, friends, and even a new lover Arobin can not bring back her love for life. Due to Edna being different from society, in ways such as not loving her children, not seeing her husband as the best of them all, and falling in love with Robert, she commits suicide to find freedom. Edna becomes crushed by societal standards and she is not mentally ill or has hysteria, but rather just depressed and finding happiness in death. Although many were considered mentally ill in this time period, it was fair for Edna to have this sorrow and commit suicide. One of the reasons to live life is for future happiness, and when you are not experiencing any happiness nor see any coming in the future, thoughts of suicide flood through your brain. These thoughts overcame Edna and she didn’t see the consequences of suicide and the unhappiness she would bring upon others. Edna was not mentally ill, just in an extreme state of sorrow that led to her believing suicide was the answer to freedom.
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