The Awakening By Kate Chopin Summary and Analysis Chapter 39

Summary

The scene shifts to Grand Isle, where Victor is making a few repairs during the off-season on the pension while flirting with Mariequita. Edna appears suddenly, saying she had come to rest for a while. Startled, Victor scurries to manage room and board for her; she requests fish for dinner and asks for towels, announcing that she is going swimming.

In reality, she plans to drown herself, having decided during her sleepless night that suicide was the only means to elude the responsibilities and obligations motherhood placed on her. She also realized that someday her passion for Robert would fade, and so had become utterly despondent.

Once on the beach, she sees a bird with a broken wing falling to its own ultimate death in the water. She puts on her bathing suit but then casts it off, standing naked on the beach and feeling as if she is seeing everything for the first time. Entering the water, she swims farther and farther out while mentally sorting through her circumstances. Her last thought is a vivid recollection of a childhood scene.

Analysis

This final chapter ends Edna's story with references to the two main themes: Edna as a child and as a bird. Recall Mademoiselle Reisz's pronouncement in Chapter 27 that 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." Although Edna had made great progress in learning to rise above the constraints of tradition, she was brought crashing to earth by the consideration of her flight's effect on her children — a traditional obligation she is emotionally unable to disregard. By fleeing to her death, she is escaping the children who "sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them." She has decided that losing their mother to an early death is for them preferable to losing their mother to scandal — a concession to society's prejudices. In this concession, her hard-won indifference to society's demands is defeated, likening her to the bird she sees on the beach, "reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water." To ensure that her death is not perceived as a suicide but merely a swimming accident, she makes specific requests to Victor as to what she'd like for lunch, to emphasize her false intention to return from her swim. Thus she spares her family the scandal that would accompany a suicide, another concession to cultural prejudice.

Yet she is, in a sense, not utterly defeated. She had renewed her life by giving rein to her childlike desires to always have her way despite the wants and needs of others. Now she regresses even further, feeling "like some new-born creature, opening its eyes" while standing naked on the beach — naked as newborns arrive. Further, her final thoughts are those of her early childhood. Again, she remembers the seemingly never-ending meadows of which the sea reminds her, recalling her revelation to Madame Ratignolle in Chapter 7 that "sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided." That description also fits her behavior since she returned to New Orleans and began to rebel against her marriage and motherhood, growing into an understanding of her true self.

In the midst of this return to childhood on the beach is her mature understanding of the nature of her feelings for Robert: "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." Just as Robert replaced the last of her former infatuations, he, too, would come to be replaced by someone, made unattractive to her by his accessibility. For her, the joy of such romantic obsessions lies in feeling them rather than consummating them. How appropriate, then, that her last thoughts return to the subject of her first infatuation, the cavalry officer; she hears how his "spurs . . . clanged as he walked across the porch."

Given Edna's love of sensuality, her choice of the blue Gulf waters as her final resting place, the scene of her final stand, is appropriate. Chopin emphasizes not only how the water's "touch . . . is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace" but also its permanence: Her use of the present tense contrasts sharply with the rest of the novel, which is all in past tense. In the sea, Edna finds an everlasting love, one who will not "melt out of her existence" like Robert and the cavalry officer.

By drowning herself, Edna is taking command of her situation as best she can, sparing Raoul and Etienne the trauma of her socially unacceptable behavior, sacrificing "the inessential" (her life) because she would never "sacrifice herself for her children," as indicated in Chapter 16. If she were to resume her married life with Léonce, she would be sacrificing the self that she has worked so hard to birth.

The novel's ending is provocative because Chopin does not indicate outright that Edna dies. Her story concludes not with images of death but with a soothing yet vivid description of a childhood scene. This ambiguity recalls Edna's tale in Chapter 23 about the young lovers who disappeared one night while boating. Edna never specified their fate, whether they had escaped to start a new life together or had met with an untimely drowning. Chopin makes use of the same ambiguity; Edna's own story ends with the reader unsure as to whether she is victorious (for coming to know her true self, achieving a brief but significant measure of independence and eluding those who would hold her back) or defeated (by the need to preserve appearances for her sons' sakes).

Glossary

scantling a small beam or timber, especially one of small cross section, as a two-by-four.

Lucullean as in the banquets of Lucius Lucinius Lucullus (circa 110-57 B.C.); Roman general and consul: proverbial for his wealth and luxurious banquets.

houri a seductively beautiful woman.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Despite their differences, Madame Ratignolle enjoys Edna's company. Why?




Quiz