Many of the characters in literature—and many of the authors who created them—meet their ends via suicide. Their motivations, philosophies—their real or imagined lives, all lead to one common end: the taking of their own lives. Edgar Allan Poe once stated that “the death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (Gentry 1). By this criterion, Kate Chopin’s work is extremely poetic, as it is riddled with suicide; often committed by, but not limited to, women. Story of an Hour, The Awakening, Desiree’s Baby, Her Letters—all of these stories end with the protagonist taking his or her own life. As Deborah Gentry mentions in the introduction to her book The Art of Dying, “from the very beginnings of Western literature, from Greek tragedy, women’s suicides have been portrayed as central plot elements” (Gentry 1). What ends these different suicides achieve is something that is up for question. The easy conclusion that can be drawn from these deaths is that these characters were unhappy within their social constraints, and that they took the arguably condemnable escape route of suicide. Suicide has connotations of “weakness and mental instability” (Gentry 2). The tragedy of the death of a beautiful woman is derived from the fact that she became so hopeless and could find no other way out than to kill herself. This would qualify as a condemnable suicide.
However, I believe that the suicides in Chopin’s work are not at all condemnable deaths. I believe that they are the product of condemnable lives.
The typical female protagonist in Chopin feels a moment of great joy when she recognizes the potential for her independence. She formulates an idea in her head of what her life could be, and she gets a taste of liberation. It is like a high, and when the women come back down and realize that their ideas of a life of independence was nothing more than a fantasy that cannot exist in her society, she understands that life is no longer enough for her. The high of liberation felt by these women at their awakenings can only be rivaled by the high of liberation felt at the moment of death.
I. “The ‘Awakening’: The moment when life is no longer enough”
The majority of Chopin’s texts are characterized by an “awakening” in which the female protagonist recognizes that there is a life outside of the glass box in which she lives. In Story of an Hour, this transition is clearly marked by the presumed death of Mrs. Mallard’s husband. After hearing the news, Mrs. Mallard turns to nature, as many of Chopin’s women do upon recognizing their internal awakening. Looking out her window, “she could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air…The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.” This is her world opening up—she sees the beauty of the wind in the trees, she smells the rain, she hears the birds. In this moment, Mrs. Mallard is unable to comprehend what she is feeling—she simply feels it: “the discovery of her individuality is ‘too subtle and elusive’ for the rational faculty to analyze and grasp. It can only be ‘felt’ first with instinct and then with emotions” (Jamil 217). All her life she lived in a box—a box where she could only look at the world through her small window. Now that her husband is dead, she can leave this box and actually appreciate whats out there for her. She feels the new potential, she sees the opportunity to integrate herself into the natural world that she was once detached from. Her “obliviousness to the beauty of life breaks down under the powerful impact of emotion” (Jamil 216), and the fall of her obliviousness leads to the rise of her awakening.
This transition of her mindset is marked by the passage: “Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” Her reaction of borderline hysteria is a response not to the loss of her husband, but to the claiming of her self; of her own unrestricted life. She has been oppressed for so long, and now the prospect of complete independence and freedom to live as she pleases is almost too much for her to bear. “Her fancy was running riot,” captures the unbridled joy she feels as a result of her newly acquired freedom. Her newfound “fancy,” is given energy and power by its action of “running riot.” It seems akin to a metaphorical tidal wive, a band of wild horses stampeding over a plain, a rioting mob perhaps—forces that cannot be controlled, a figurative riot of emotion. This emotion is a force strong enough to change Mrs. Mallard; “as John Deigh defines emotion, it is ‘a state through which the world engages our thinking and elicits our pleasure or displeasure’ (829–30), for it is the ‘turbulence of the mind’
that ‘captures our attention, orients our thoughts, and touches our sensibilities’” (Jamil 218). This puts into perspective for the reader just how powerful Mrs. Mallard’s emotional reaction to both nature and liberation is—as well as the strength of her feeling of freedom. This provides a bit of foreshadowing that her feelings of deadly joy might be more than she can handle.
The next line, “Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own,” stirs up connotations of beautiful days, beautiful weather, and overall enjoyment. It is crucial to recognize that Mrs. Mallard only references spring and summer, leaving out fall and winter. She uses the more desirable seasons to describe her days to come, her days alone, allowing the reader to make the assumption that her days of marriage were harsh, cold, and icy, like winter and fall. This supports Chopin’s personal philosophy that marriage is an institution that forces limitations and unhappiness on those involved. It is also important to note that Mrs. Mallard describes her awakening vs. her life of obliviousness in terms of the natural world. Before her awakening, nature was nothing but a scene on the other side of a windowpane, but now it is something that helps her feel and understand freedom. She could never relate to the natural world until she was free and unpossessed.
Chopin is also commenting on the idea of possession in marriage—the days of Mrs. Mallard’s future will be “her own,” whereas in marriage they were shared, perhaps not even shared. One could go so far to say that Chopin believed that marriage is an act of a husband possessing a wife or vise versa. Chopin is saying through Mrs. Mallard’s story that the only things that truly bring us joy are the things that are our own. Finally, Mrs. Mallard “breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” The power and effectiveness in the pairing of these two phrases lies in the repetition of “that life might be long” at the end of each one. Initially, she is caught up in her moment of ecstasy and prays that she will live a long life—a long life filled with many spring and summer days that she will have all to herself, days where she will not have to answer to a husband or worry about the needs of any individual outside of herself. This signifies where she is going with her newfound freedom. Then, she looks back and remembers how she “had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” The prospect of going on for years, potentially decades, as half of a married couple used to scare her so deeply that it roused a physical response from her. Chopin is saying that married life is not life at all. It does not feel like life, it feels like a slow trudge towards a welcome death. Her life felt more like dying than anything else. As a result, when she realizes that her husband is indeed still alive, she has no choice but to allow herself to die—to will herself to die. She has seen the potential for what her life could be if she was not married, and faced with the reality that she would have to return to being a normal wife.
This same awakening can be seen in The Awakening, particularly in Edna’s first and final swim. In her first swim, “she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who all of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with overconfidence.” As she swims farther and farther out, she thinks, “‘It is nothing,’ she said aloud; ‘why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!’” (Chopin 49). Much like Mrs. Mallard’s awakening, Edna’s is brought about by a newfound connection with the natural world. As she swims, she “turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitutde, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy” (Chopin 49). It is interesting to note that the word “fancy” is used, just as it is in Story of An Hour, to describe Edna’s awakening. All of these years she has been afraid of the ocean, disconnected from it, and never independent enough to swim out on her own. Once she finally does swim out, she feels the same euphoria that Mrs. Mallard felt looking out the window.
Edna’s final moment of life is characterized by a lot of the same emotions that she feels during her first swim. She feels seduced by the “whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting” nature of the sea (Chopin 138), and when she stands naked before the ocean “she felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (Chopin 138). She has spent her whole life living in this world, this beautiful natural world, but has never known it save for swimming in it once. She recognizes that life will never be enough for her again, now that she knows what she’s missed—what she’ll continue to miss until the end of her days. At this moment, she decides that she will swim out to her death, immerse herself in the world she never knew, and drown in its magnificence. She swims out and “did not look back…but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing it had no beginning and no end” (Chopin 139). This marks her return to the bliss of childhood, when she was unpossessed and not oppressed—before her husband and her children “thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (Chopin 139).
Edna goes through her life before her suicide exploring her sexuality as well as her passions and desire for success as an individual, but the more she explores these two facets of herself, the more she realizes that they cannot coexist. “Edna appears in the novel as a character on a continuum between Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz. She has children like Adele, but cannot find fulfillment or even acquiescence in a biologically determined role that strips her of her individuality. Yet she cannot embrace the other societal choice open to her, that of the neutered female hermit, the spinster, Mademoiselle Reisz” (Gentry 36). Essentially, Edna has only two options: she has the option of either being Adele Ratignolle or Mademoiselle Reisz. She can not mix the two and create a hybrid identity. Her urge to be an artist is combatted by her female instincts, and when she recognizes that she cannot have one and also the other, this combines with her need to free herself of her husband and children, and she decides to take her own life. She’s had tastes of both options, but is not strong enough as an individual to commit to only one. She refuses to live for her art at the cost of her sexuality, but also refuses to live for her family at the cost of her individuality. She knows too much for her own good—is too aware of the potential for a completely independent life, but lacks the capacity to fully embrace the lifestyle of Mademoiselle Reisz. As Gentry says it: “having awakened to the ‘beauty and brutality’ (Chopin 83) that constitutes existence, Edna refuses to compromise, and therefore, kills herself. It is safe to say that when she realized that life would not allow for her to explore the two sides of herself: artistic individuality and innate sexuality, she feels that life is not enough for her and decides to end it altogether” (Gentry 37). The only feasible route for her, like many of Chopin’s women, is suicide.
II. “Detrimental to both patriarchs and their kept wives”
Chopin’s women are not the only ones who take their own lives, as is evidenced by the suicide of the male protagonist in Her Letters. His death is a result of “the man-instinct of possession stir[ring] in his blood.” His need to possess, his doubt that he possessed his wife, and his need to know the truth—all three of these things “possessed” him, for lack of a better word. “A weight had settled upon his spirit, a conviction, a certitude that there could be but one secret which a woman would choose to have die with her. This one thought was possessing him. It occupied his brain, keeping it nimble and alert with suspicion. It clutched his heart, making every breath of existence a fresh moment of pain.” The pain of being possessed, while not directly by another person, is enough to eventually prompt him to walk into the river. “Only the river knew. It babbled, and he listened to it, and it told him nothing, but it promised all. He could hear it promising him with caressing voice, peace and sweet repose. He could hear the sweep, the song of the water inviting him. A moment more and he had gone to seek her, and to join her and her secret thought in the immeasurable rest.” He meets a very similar end to Edna in The Awakening—both are seduced by the allure of water, and both are drawn to suicide by feelings of repression: one repressed and possessed by a patriarch, the other possessed by the idea that he wasn’t a patriarch at all.
This also supports Chopin’s idea that the institution of marriage was detrimental to both parties involved—man needs to feel as if he possesses something that can never truly be possessed, and woman is subject to his fight for possession. The result is a sort of twisted waltz that two people are stuck in together from the moment they accept each other as man and wife. This struggle is elaborated upon well by Cho, who explains the issue of the protagonist in Her Letters.
“To the husband, the gap appears in his wife’s letters, which suggests that her being is not completely captured in her interpellation as his wife. He faces a dilemma in which he can neither accept nor deny the truth. He does not confront the traumatic truth of the gap in her interpellation. First, he throws her letters, unread, into the river, supposing that his inner conflict will disappear with them. However, the suspicion about the purity of his wife, which is at the heart of her interpellation, still haunts the husband after getting rid of her letters. His inability to penetrate her secret, in turn, challenges his own interpellation as a husband and a male” (Cho).
As was suggested before, his need to possess a wife—a wife whom was incapable of being fully possessed—was the main thing that helped him validate himself as a man. Without the possession of his wife and without the answer regarding why she was not “completely captured in her interpellation” as a wife, he feels as if he has lost his rooting as a masculine figure. Even when he tries to forget about the whole thing, it eats away at him.
Marriage is portrayed by Chopin as a corrosive affair. It is a battle of possession—man either possesses his wife or is possessed by his need to possess her. Within the context of Chopin’s stories, marriage can only end in suicide. Comparatively, within the context of reality, marriage can only end in—metaphorical or not—suicide: a spouse must either figuratively kill off his or her own individuality or sense of happiness, or take his or her own life in a literal sense. This relates back to the issue of condemnable lives versus condemnable deaths. Chopin forces us to ask, which is worse? To live life as a fraction of oneself, killing off bits of one’s own individuality—or to kill one’s own being altogether; to recognize the fact that a life lived in marriage is a life lived in oppression. A life that will never result in happiness. A life that would be better taken than lived. Clearly, Chopin advocates for taking a condemnable life over living one.
III. “Chasing a High”
It is also arguable that the reason why so many of Chopin’s stories end in suicides is because that is the only way that the characters can replicate the high of their awakening. They feel the awakening of being reborn, are forced to come back down to earth and potentially live out a life of normalcy, they are unwilling to accept this, and the only way that they can recreate their awakening is through the transition from life to death. Bartley brings up the issue of thinking about the future. While he is concerned with the ethical nature of envisioning the future, for the sake of this argument we will focus more on the problems that arise from envisioning a future. Firstly, an issue with envisioning the future is that our imaginings can change. This puts us in a place of turmoil, as sometimes one future may seem better than the other, or an undesirable future may seem like the most probable. The competition between our imaginings can consume us, and as Bartley says, “this entrenchment, more than any other feature, explains the equally contrasting assessments of Edna’s suicide, which is, if nothing else, her final response to the crisis occasioned by these conflicting images [of her future]” (Bartley 722). She is caught in the middle of, as Toth explains it, a “dual life ‘the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions’” (Toth 115). The highs that Edna feels as she predicts her own future can only be rivaled by the high of taking her own life—of swimming out into the ocean by her own power and dying free and unpossessed. She knows that her reality will never fully amount to her imaginings, and a life spent longing for something she know cannot exist is a life that she isn’t capable of enduring. This same sort of death can be seen in Story of an Hour, as Mrs. Mallard looks to her future, imagines all the days that would be “her own,” and then once she realizes that she will never have them, she has no choice but to will herself to die—a joy-induced suicide.
Clearly, these suicides are not the products of mental instability, depression, “diseases or heredity” (Toth 119). The only disease that can be credited with the killing of these literary protagonists is the disease of society, the disease of the institution of marriage that oppresses both wives and husbands and tasks husbands with the impossibility of possessing their wives. Women were supposed to be fully possessed, but like any living creature it is impossible to own a wife. It is impossible to keep her in a box while simultaneously allowing her to live happily. On the other side of marriage, it is impossible for a man to be the owner he hopes to be. The fact that anybody would desire or expect to live a life in this nature is condemnable, and therefore the suicides within the works of Chopin cannot be condemned.
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