Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 4 - Symbolism, Romanticism, Nihilism And A Dissonant Ending!
Hi, I’m Christy Shriver. We’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. This is our final episode in our four-part series of Kate Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening. There is a lot layered in such a short book. In episode 1, we discuss Chopin’s life, we introduce the concept of “local color” and we arrive on the colorful shores of a summer resort village in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Episode 2 we spend time on Grand Isle. We meet Edna, Adele, Mr. Pontellier, Robert Lebrun and Madame Reisz. We watch Edna awaken to an inner awareness she had never understood before, and we see this awakening occur through a physical sensuality she has never experienced before. She learns to swim. Edna Pontellier leaves Grand Isle a very different person than how she arrived at the beginning of her summer. Episode 3 we start with chapter 18 as Edna arrives back home in New Orleans. Nothing would be the same. She cannot conform to the roles she has previously played. She does not fit into the culture; she doesn’t want to anymore. She abandons almost all that she had previously identified with and experiments with different lifestyles: the arts, the horse races, men, ultimately she decides to leave the ritzy Esplanade street and take up residence in what she calls her Pigeon House just around the corner. Today, we begin with chapter 26 and we follow Edna’s progression through the end of the book.
Stylistically Chopin wrote what we call a realistic novel. The story, the settings, the characters truthfully represent the real world. Grand Isle really exists and the resort there existed in the way she described it. The same is true for Esplanade Street. The details are accurate as Chopin represents the reality the great city of New Orleans at the turn of the century. The French language, the customs, the way people behave, the races, the music, even the Song, “Ah, si tu savais”…is a real song. All of these things reflect reality. However, as we get farther to the end of the novel, and as the reader gets more submerged into Edna’s perspective, things get more and more romanticized. Objects that seemed liked just objects at the beginning are now understood to be metaphorical and are symbolic. We notice that objects are repeating and evolving- they are motifs. In other words, the objects are still what they have always been, but they have taken on to mean MORE than just what they originally meant. We understand things to be symbols in two ways. The first way is whey the author spends an inordinate amount of time describing something that maybe isn’t THAT important otherwise. A second way is when we notice something to keep showing up over and over again. Here’s one example There is music in the beginning. It’s described in detail, but notice just how much music there is in this book. Notice how much time is devoted to describing it. There is music in the middle and there is music at the end. It means something, but of course it’s up to us to draw our own conclusions as to what. The birds work the same way. There are birds on the first page, they come back in the middle and there is a bird on the last page. It means something. Food and meals are often symbolic. Meals are archetypal symbols for fellowship. Chopin use meals as a way to sort track what’s going on with Edna and her relationships throughout the story. Following the symbols helps us understand the universality of the story. The biggest symbol is the sea, and by the end of the book it takes on mythic proportions. The sea, as we pointed out in the beginning is personified. It’s alive. But by the end, if we look carefully, we see in the description that the ocean is described as a serpent- uh ohh. That’s a Biblical symbol- but even in the Bible a serpent is not just one thing. But it’s not just the Bible that that is alluded here in these ocean references. Edna as called Venus, and Venus emerges from the sea. What is that about? Although everything is still realistic- there are no superheroes or magic or pirates or fairies of any kind, there symbols somehow feel allegorical; is Edna even a real person or is she a type? I know that’s a little hyperbolic, but not by much. Today as we end our discussion, I’d like to see this book as indeed political; there certainly is that side of it, but that is just the surface. It goes beyond that to ask questions that are personal. But before we can do that, we must first address the political. Chopin was, by her very essence, a woman in the vein of what Europeans of her day called the “New Women” of the fin de siècle. Garry, Chopin, was a well-read French speaker and reader very attune to the political, social and literary movements of her day, but we are not- although I will say, I’ve learned a lot about new women by watching them evolve in Downton Abbey, but what is a “new woman” and what does the term “fim de siècle” mean beyond the obvious translation of end of the century.
The term “New Woman” was actually an invention of the British media- it’s not an American thing- and you’re right, it’s showcased in a lot of period pieces. Here’s one tell, a new woman might be the one riding a bicycle as a display of her independence.
A bicycle. That’s funny.
You’d have been the first to get your hands on one, I’m sure. Think about it; just being able to wear clothes that would allow you to ride it would be liberating. Anyway, the term first came out in the The Woman’s Herald in August of 1893. To use the newspaper’s words, “woman suddenly appears on the scene of man’s activities, as a sort of new creation, and demand a share in the struggles, the responsibilities and the honurs of the world, in which, until now, she has been a cipher.” This feminist vision, as you can imagine was highly controversial and threatening to the status quo. Among other things, it involved a new definition of female sexuality. Some considered this alone to be the beginning of the apocalypse- the world was certainly turning upside down. The mainstream media portrayed the new woman as a mannish brute towering over men- someone who is extremely hideous and monstrous- something most women obviously would not want to embrace- very propagandic. Opponents were making caricatures as negative as possible of these “independent women” wearing masculine clothes and pursuing unwomanly pursuits like sports, politics or higher education.
How dare they?
There was a lot of cigar smoking in these pictures. These were meant to be negative images; the women would have angry faces, maybe with their hands on their hips scowling at the reader. But in the feminist media, the new woman was portrayed very differently. The traits were the exact same but portrayed in a positive way. The new woman in these publications was portrayed as a social warrior defending her home, using her political positions, social standings to compliment traditional household duties. The idea being a new woman didn’t neglect her family she was a better provider and defender of self and family because of it. The main difference between these new visions of a new woman had to do with what you do with motherhood. Femininist media created images of women incorporating traditionally male domains not necessarily excluding motherhood. The big political interests that stand out were women’s suffrage and property rights. Women were interested in careers outside the home and higher education. Women’s periodicals emerged with pretty large readerships, and not all of these readers were women. Women were publicly and in writing asking other women to openly express their views on contemporary life- this was new. The question of the era was “What is the role of the ‘new woman’?” I quote the North America Review here, “the great problem of the age is how to emancipate woman and preserve motherhood.” In the 1890s, the new woman wanted to be what some called a “respected radical”.
And of course, we don’t have to get far into The Awakening to see these political and social concerns embedded in Chopin’s work. She is a voice speaking to this socio-political moment in time, and she’s commenting in a serious way on women’s struggle to speak- Edna struggles to speak for herself at everyone point in the book. Interestly enough, Edna didn’t have a mother and doesn’t know what to do with motherhood. She had no personal role model.
I noticed that, and it matters psychologically when we watch Edna vacillate at the end of the book. Chopin created a character of extreme economic privilege for her day, yet still, Edna has terrible trouble articulating even to herself what she feels or what she wants. The reasons for this are not simply resolved. Chopin seems to suggest to me that for sure there are political, social and cultural adjustments that must be made giving women more rights, but that’s just one part of it. Chopin illustrates this from the vantage point of a woman. There must be a redefinition of respectable womanhood that is not so polarizing. Here there are only two versions of respectable women- Madame Reisz and the other Adele Ratignole.
By chapter 26 Edna clearly understands she is not one or the other, but there is an inarticulate lostness. Where does Edna fit in? She tells Madame Reisz that she’s moving out of her home, and for a brief moment you wonder if she’s got some sort of radical plan, except she doesn’t and her reasons don’t even make a lot of sense. They’re emotional. She’s literally moving “just two steps away in a little four-room house around the corner. It looks so cozy, so inviting a restful, whenever I pass by, and it’s for rent. I’m tired looking after that big house. It seemed seemed like mine, anyway- like home. It’s too much trouble. I have to keep too many servants. I am tired bothering with them.” She goes on to say when Madame Reisz doesn’t buy that explanation, “The house, the money, that provides for it are not mine. Isn’t that enough reason?”
Obviously those are NOT reasons enough- what does she get out of this move? When Madame Reisz asks how her husband reacted to this plan this is her response, “I have not told him. I only thought of it this morning.”
SOO impulsive. I’m ashamed to say, I know people that do things like this, but this is not my vision of the real pioneers of the women’s movement- not today or from the turn of the century- women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Isadora Duncan, Clara Burton, Mary Wollstonecraft- they aren’t anything like Edna Pontellier.
Well, no they are not, Edna has some deficiencies for sure, and they express themselves in various ways. One of these is expressed through this confusion of passion with relationship like we see with Robert LeBrun. She indulges in fantasy which is fun, of course, and the idea of Robert is a wonderful fantasy.
This is something else that frustrates me, personally, with Edna. I keep wanting to say, “snap out of it, child!” Chopin builds this tension but she never lets Edna snap out of it. And even though the title of this book is The Awakening, and it is true is that Edna awakens continuously throughout the book, There is another sense paradoxically where Edna is always asleep literally and figuratively. Edna is not a villain; Edna is not a pathetic character; Edna is a realistic character who vacillates all the time between this illusion and reality. She’s continually uncovering things that haven’t been real, but then constructing things that are totally fake- like her life in this pigeon house or her relationship with Robert. Unpacking Edna is seeing a real life- a struggle. Chopin’s evolutionary character awakens from a very female - not a male one, not a neutered life; the complexity derives from realities that are unique to women, specifically those from the turn of the century, but the social and culture implications aside, in universal terms, what does it mean for Edna to be in love with Robert? To love someone means something in a universal way. People love in all cultures in all times all around the world. For a woman to love a man as she claims to love Robert, what does she mean? Is she saying she desires a life with him; does she want to take on any responsibility for his happiness or good? That is what I find confusing, because Edna doesn’t seem to be doing that for anyone. In what sense is Edna “in love” or should we not take her at her word on this?
Ha! Do we take anyone at their word when they are “in love”? Of course, when she is asked to describe what she means, she describes the biochemical addiction we all feel when we can’t get enough of another person. That experience is overwhelming for anyone; and Chopin has gone to a lot of trouble to show us that Edna has never been “in love” before. Edna is a woman who recently just turned on her feelings. Turning on our feelings is important, and it is very sad that it was so long in happening for her. Contrary to popular opinion, feelings are good. To experience feelings is not a sign of weakness. Not taking into account her feelings is what got her into a loveless marriage to begin with. We have to learn to incorporate our emotions if we are going to live as a whole individual- a person with no dead spots. Edna has lived from her childhood onward with lots of dead spots. This has handicapped her in many ways. In this case, what does it mean for Edna in Edna’s mind to love Robert LeBrun? What does it mean if he loves her? I’m not sure the relationship between these two is what is important for Chopin. It appears to be the backdrop of a larger issue? Love is not the end game for Edna; passion was the catalyst to her awakening, to be sure, but the relationship between Edna and Robert is not a Romeo and Juliet type story. The Awakening is not a love story.
Indeed, Madame Reisz recognizes that as well. Madame Reisz calls Edna “Ma Reine” in chapter 26. She then asks, “Why do you love him when you ought not?”
And why does that term “ma reine” draw your attention?
Because that term means, “My queen”, and that seems to be more in line what Edna wants instead of a relationship with Robert LeBrun. What has Edna discovered in this world. She’s discovered she doesn’t want to be woman-mother. She discovered she doesn’t really want to be artist woman. She’s trying out what it’s like to be a “man” in some ways. But really what she wants is to be Woman-queen. Which is a nice role- I’d like that to be that one as well.
Ha! Not a Disney princess.
Heck no- I’m all for mother-queen. But here’s Edna’a problem. She’s not prepared nor does she seem creative enough to invent this role for herself in the actual real world in which she lives; she likely can’t conceptualize it. This illusion of a mother-queen will be the model from here to the end of the book. The thing is, it’s not real; Edna is creating an illusion. In fact, this whole book is a discussion on illusion versus reality. What did Edna awaken to, if not to the understanding that her entire life was an illusion- she was living an inauthentic life. Except, look at what she does in response to that? She’s building more illusion- exhibit A- this relationship with Robert- if it is anything it is an expression of illusion.
Edna doesn’t need a fantasy. She needs hope. She needs to see her own potential- a creative vision of what she can become, something she would like to become- if not mother, if not artist, if not horse-racer, if not socialite, then what.
In chapter 27, Edna says this “Don’t you know the weather prophet has told us we shall see the sun pretty soon?” The sun is a very ancient and universal symbol. It represents hope. It represents creativity; it’s a male archetypal symbol, btw, the sun represents energy. If you remember, Edna can only paint in the sun, and that’s exactly right. That’s all of us, we all can only create in the sun. We can only move forward when we have hope. The Sun gives us life and without it we live in darkness, without hope. Edna is wrestling with finding hope, but that seems to be problematic because she can’t even decide if she’s a good person or a bad person. Listen to what she says to Arobin, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think- try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilish wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”
It is in that line that I think Chopin enraptures many female readers. I want to read it again, “
By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilish wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”
In other words, the world tells me I am a bad person because I’m not conforming properly. I’m not doing the right things; but something inside of me defies that. I don’t feel devilish. But I’m told I am, and there is my disconnect.
Indeed-and isn’t it interesting that it is here at this point that Edna revisits something Madame Reisz has apparently told her previously but we are only getting to see in this context after this confession, “When I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said, ‘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.”
I agree, but what kind of bird is Edna? Madame Reisz is not using language that suggest Edna IS this kind of woman. She’s challenging her to be a certain way. She’s saying if Edna wants to have a certain outcome, she must display certain characteristics. But, notice the next thing that happens, Edna and Arobin kiss passionately. “It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.” Chopin is very delicate in how she expresses the implied sex scene. The entire chapter is very short- very different than how Shonda Rimes does these things in Bridgerton. Let’s read it.
I know this is not the majority view here, but this is not only Edna asserting independence. This is Edna running into more illusion. From here, she immediately moves out of Leonce’s house, but not without running up a crazy expensive bill with a lavish dinner party. Arobin calls it a coup d’etat. “It will be day after tomorrow. Why do you call it the coup d’etat? Oh! It will be a very fine; all my best of everything- crystal, silver, and gold. Sevres. Flowers, music and champagne to swim in. I’ll let Leonce pay the bills. I wonder what he’ll say when he sees the bills.”
This dinner party is very strange. For a book so short, why should so many pages be devoted to a dinner party that is essentially meaningless in terms of plot development.
It is long. One critic pointed out that it’s literally, “the longest sustained episode in the novel.”
So, why? It does not develop the plot; it does not develop any characters; nothing provocative is uttered. What is going on?
Well!!! Meals are never just meals- not in literature, not in the movies. In fact, food is never just food. It’s almost always symbolic of something. Food is so essential to life, in fact it IS life, but meals are essential to community. They don’t just symbolize fellowship- they ARE fellowship. This Thursday night we are going to celebrate our niece, Lauren, graduating from Collierville High School, and how are we going to do this, we are going to eat together. Eating together is bonding. With that in mind, notice how many meals are consumed in this story.
So, what’s with the dinner Edna holds? Her family isn’t there. Her husband isn’t there. Adele, her closest friend, isn’t even there. Many literary critics have suggested, and I honestly think there is validity to this, that Chopin is creating a parody of Jesus’ last supper. Edna has invited a select 12 to join her on her birthday dinner. There’s irony there. In some sense, it’s not just a day where she is celebrating turning 29. She sees herself as being reborn- her birth…day. She is celebrating her departure, but unlike Jesus’ humble meal in the upper room before his crucifixion and resurrection- Edna goes high dollar. She sits at the end of the table presiding over her dinner guests, who all have a magnificent time, btw. She wears a cluster of diamonds she had just received that morning from her husband. There is a specially designed cocktail her father invented for her sister’s wedding that she didn’t attend; there are multiple courses, everyone has a special chair. Everything was queenly. Let me read the description of Edna, “The golden shimmer….
Madame Reisz on her way out at the end of the party again says this, “Bonne nuit, ma reine, soyez sage.” Translated- Good night, my queen, be wise.”
Well, you’ve made your case…she is playing the part of the queen. But who are the other people in this charade? Specifically, why is Mrs. Highcamp there who we know she doesn’t like, and why is she weaving a garland of yellow and red roses and laying it over Victor…according to Chopin transforming Victor into a vision of oriental beauty, his cheeks the color or crushed grapes and his dusty eyes glowed with a languishing fire. After that she drapes a while silk scarf on him. It’s just weird…and pagan feeling…nothing like the Lord’s Supper of the bible, if you were trying to make that comparison.
No, it’s the very opposite. That’s why critics say it’s a parody of Jesus’ last supper. It’s imitating but not recreating. It feels pagan, doesn’t it? Edna is Queen but she has no stated purpose; she is not Jesus sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. Another moment of parody is when Victor, Judas’ like, quickly falls out of favor or betrays her so to speak by singing a song Edna associates with Robert. But he is shut down.
In the chapters that follow, we see Leonce saving face by remodeling the house as a way of explaining Edna’s odd behavior and moving out of the family home. Edna feels happy about what she’s done. Of course, these are all feelings but “Every step which she took to relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper undercurrents of life.” Again, Chopin never gets far away from the idea that Edna is trying to understand for herself what is real and she is doing this by stripping down, an image we will see all the way to the end.
And yet, the text never clarifies exactly what it is that Edna is learning about the world and herself. She draws no conclusions, makes no provisions, takes on no responsibilities. Reality is an immovable thing. It is not something we simply escape- that is not possible.
Well, I’m not sure Edna knows that. She visits her children and weeps when she ssees them. Let me quote here, “She lived with them a whole week long, giving them all of herself, and gathering, and filling. Herself with their young existence.” She tells then about the Pigeon house and the kids get real very quickly. They ask her where they would sleep, where papa would sleep. Edna’s answer betrays her unwillingness to problem solve. She says and I quote, “the fairies would fix it all right.”
Edna rejects reality over and over again. She responds with fantasy at every point. Madame Ratignolle recognizes this. In chapter 33 she pays Edna a visit at the pigeon house. She asks about the dinner party. She warns her about her behavior with Arobin, but she also makes Edna promise that when the baby comes, Edna would come be a part of the delivery. Before leaving she says this to Edna, “In some ways you seem to me like a child, Edna. You seem to act without a certain amount of reflection which is necessary in this life.”
Adele is referring to whatever is going on with Arobin, but really, the relationship with Robert is the epitome of her fantasy. As long as Robert is flirting with no goal- like he did on Grand Isle, Edna is in love with him. On Grand Isle they share a meal together. They talk about spirits and pirates. She loves that. But here in New Orleans, Robert approaches Edna with a desire to be honest and she rejects that. The text says that in some way “Robert seemed nearer to her off there in Mexico than when he stood in her presence, and she had touched his hand”. After Edna’s birthday we see no more communal meals, Edna eats alone- there is no more fellowship at this point really with anyone. Edna invites Robert to eat with her at a little restaurant called “Catiche”. Edna requests a plate and puts food in front of him, but he doesn’t eat a morsel. He walks her home and comes inside. Edna kisses him. He confesses his love and how he is tormented because Edna is not free. Let’s read this exchange.
“Something put into my head that you cared for me; and I lost my senses. I forgot everything but a wild dream of you some way becoming my wife.”
“Religion, loyalty, everything would give way if only you cared.”
Then you must have forgotten that I was Leonce Pontellier’s wife.”
“Oh I was demented, dreaming of wild, impossible things, recalling men who had set their wives free, we have heard of such things.”
Yes, we have heard of such things.”
There’s a little more back and forth until we get to this line of Edna’s, “You have been a very very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say “here Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours, I should laugh at you both.”
He of course responds with, “What do you mean?” He has no idea what Edna’s talking about.
Exactly, and here is where the a plot complication makes things interesting. Their conversation is interrupted when Madame Ratignolle’s servant comes to say that Adelle is having her baby. Edna leaves Robert. She says this to Robert, “I love you. Only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream.”
Robert begs Edna, as if she really were Queen Edna. He begs her to stay with him- to not go to Adelle. This is kind reminiscient of the stereotypical female damsel in distress begging her hero to stay- except in revere. She pulls away, promises to return and leaves him and quote the text here, “longing to hold her and keep her.”
This Birth scene is symbolic in many ways. It also is a return to the female reality. Is there anything more real in this world than bringing life into it? This birth scene reminds readers that this is a uniquely female story because this is one way men and women engage the world differently and there is no way around it. Motherhood and fatherhood are not the same. Edna goes to Adelle and begins to feel uneasy. Let’s read this paragraph from chapter 37.
On the surface, it seems that Adele is hoping to inspire Edna to resume her role as a Woman-mother. On the surface it seems that Edna is battling social conventions and her own sensuality.
Of course, the whole experience leaves her dazed. The doctor walks her home, and I quote, “Oh well, I don’t know that it matters after all. One has to think of the children some time or other; the sooner the better.” Let’s read the rest of this dialogue between the doctor and Edna.
Even at the end of the chapter, Edna cannot articulate her own thoughts, not even inside her own head. Still she remembers Adele’s voice whispering, “Think of the children; think of them.” She meant to think of them; that determination had driven into her soul like a death wound- but not tonight. Tomorrow would be time to think of everything.”
Of course, when she gets inside the pigeon house there is no Robert. He left a note. “I love you. Good bye- because I love you.” Edna grew faint; uttered no words and stayed up the entire night, apparently just staring at a flickering lamp.
Again, may I point out- light represents hope and hers is flickering.
Speaking just in a general sense, we are co-creators of our reality- our circumstances proscribe lots of things, but we create out of those circumstances and we know it. And since we know this, no person can run away from his own innate moral obligation to live up to whatever potential we find inside of us. Whatever we determine that to be. We cannot run away from that reality. No matter how hard we try to put it off until tomorrow, that sense of obligation to create something out of our lives is inside of us. We can’t run from it because it is not coming from outside of us. Edna, in all of her confusion, and she, is very confused about a lot of things at various points in the book, but she never wavers about that. She clearly says early on in the book, that she understood herself to have an obligation first and foremost to herself. But what is that obligation- it is for her what it is for everyone. She must meet her own potential. We cannot fail at that. If we feel we are failing at that, that’s when despair sets in.
Edna looks at certain realities in her life and awakens to an awareness she doesn’t want to face. She sees obligations in her future- not opportunities. She doesn’t want tomorrow to come, but not going to bed does not put off the morning from arriving.
The end of the book circles back to where it starts- Grand Isle. Except it is not the Grand Isle of the summer. Archetypally, Spring represents new birth, summer represents youth; fall represents adulthood or maturity. Grand Isle is still there, but the women from the summer resort are not. It’s barren. The sun and the warmth is not there either. Edna returns to find Victor there. She arrives to find that he’s been telling Mariequita all about her birthday dinner. He has described Edna and and I quote, “Venus rising from the foam”. If you remember from your Roman mythology, Venus is the goddess of love and is said to have emerged full-grown from the ocean foam. So read into that what you will. Anyway Edna asks him to prepare a meal of fish. She then leaves Victor for the beach for a swim. If you recall, it was at this place where she had her first swim and experienced her first real awakening. But now this beach is dreary and deserted.
Let’s listen to the thoughts in Edna’s head, “She had said it over and over to herself. “Today it is Arobin’ tomorrow it will be someone else. It makes no difference to me. It doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontelllier- but Raoul and Etienne!” She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children. Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted. There was no one thing in the world that she desired. There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone. The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her, who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach.”
There’s a lot of nihilism in those comments. Edna has found nothing that excites her passion. “There was no one thing that she desired” – that’s the line that stands out. Desire is the fuel of human behavior. It’s where we see our potential. This is a huge expression of someone who has given up all desire to have responsibility for anyone or anything- and it is unthinking here. She is completely detached to a degree that it’s actually shocking. I see why this book unsettled so many people. We don’t want to believe people can detach like this. We know it’s dangerous.
She wades out into this ocean because the seas is seductive. It whispers, it clamours; it murmurs. It invites her soul to want in the abysses of solitude. Edna looks up to see a bird with a broken wing beating the air above and falling down disabled to the water. She then takes off all of her clothes and stands naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun with the waves inviting her to come in, and so she does. Let’s read this final page.
We notice right away the sea is a serpent about her ankle. Most of us think of a serpent as a symbol for the devil, and that’s true in the book of Genesis. But that is not the only time we see a serpent in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites in the desert look up to a serpent on a stick for healing. Archetypally a serpent is a symbol of rebirth.
Edna retreats into thoughts of her childhood which reminds me that Edna has no mother. Honestly, this does not read like a suicide. I For one, think, Chopin leaves it completely open ended. Can we be sure Edna even dies? Chopin ends this book entirely unresolved. It’s disturbing.
It hinges on what you want to do with that ocean. And scholars have come to zero consensus on how to understand this ending. Oceans symbolically can be sources of self-awareness. They can be places to find rebirth. But, what’s jarring about this ending is that there is nothing in Edna’s characterization at any point in the book to suggest that Edna wants a beginning or even an ending for that matter. Edna doesn’t search for closure not one time in this story- even the bedtime story she tells her kids there’s no ending. Edna is not just rejecting society’s roles for her; she seems to be rejecting herself as an individual here. Do these final images of her childhood suggest she wants to start over or does she give up up?
When ending a good song, every musician knows you have to create closure at the end or you don’t resolve the tension in the music. Non musicians may not know that but they feel it when it happens. Try ending a song on the 5 chord. And for a woman with such a keen sense of music, it seems Chopin purposely leaves her song unresolved. There is no funeral; nobody on the beach; not even any thoughts of exit in Edna’s mind. There is nothing. Instead, Edna is focused on all the repeating elements of her own life’s story. It is a totally directionless ending.
And that’s what people love about it- it’s messy and unresolved. It’s realistic but also kind of mythical. I guess, if we want to we can finish the tale in our own minds. We can either kill her off or revive her. She either sinks into further illusion, or she awakens one final time into a creative reality. The central motif of this book is this sleeping/waking thing that goes on the entire time. And maybe that’s where we find ourselves-- hopefully to a much lesser degree than Edna- the messiness of life sets in when we find ourselves oscillating between waking up and further deluding ourselves at some lost point in our lives. We will make a mess of things (as Chopin says about Edna) – being a victim of forces without and forces within. Yet what happens after we go into the ocean- or do we even dare? I like to see this ending positively. I like to think of Edna rising up and finding she CAN attach to other humans in a way where one does not consume the other. She can find meaning in her children, in work, in art, in society. She can find a way to make peace with her culture, her society, her limitations from without and within. In my mind’s eye, she arises out of the foam-like Venus to rob a term from Victor.
So, whether it’s realistic or not- In my mind, Edna comes back up- A woman- Queen. I know I’m adding extensively to the text and that is a terribly bad no no, but hopefully while she was under water listening to all those bees she came up with a good plan.
HA! You do like to find the silver lining in every storm. Well, thanks for spending time with us today. We hope you enjoyed our final discussion on this very perplexing piece of literature. Next episode, we move from Louisiana up the road to our home state of Tennessee to discuss the music and life of our own Dolly Parton, self-made woman of this generation, whose displays the very idea of local color in her music. We would ask you to please share our podcast with a friend. Email or text them a link. Share a link on your social media. That’s how we grow. Also, visit our website at www.howtolovelitpodcast.com for merchandise as well as free listening guides for teachers and students of English.